Recycling Mysteries: Candy Wrappers

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‘Tis the season for candy, candy and more candy. Pumpkin-shaped chocolates, sour gummies, sugary sweet lollipops and tons of other sweet treats line the shelves at the grocery store this time of year. My sweet tooth is calling, but does the planet approve?

Most of our favorite candies are wrapped in not-so-eco-friendly materials that make their way into the landfill, even when dutifully placed in the recycling bin. These colorful little wrappers are simply too difficult to recycle.

Waste management specialists have come to one conclusion: It’s just not worth it. Unlike materials America readily recycles, like glass bottles and aluminum cans, wrappers are typically made of multiple materials. Bits of plastic, aluminum and paper are mixed together, making it difficult, tedious and expensive to recover each constituent for recycling.

Packaging consultant Sterling Anthony says it all comes down to the state of the recyclable materials market.

“PET plastic, the plastic used for most water and soft drinks, is made from one material, and that material can be broken down into materials that can be used for other items. So, there’s a market for it,” Anthony says.

Because plastic bottles can be recovered easily and economically, and there’s a healthy end-use market for their recovered materials, waste management facilities have an incentive for their collection and processing. However, candy wrappers are usually made up of mixed materials, making the recovery of useful materials difficult and expensive.

As a result, most waste management companies, manufacturers and municipal recycling facilities tend to turn their backs from candy wrappers.

The Volume Dilemma

While a healthy market for recovered candy wrappers may be in our reach, Anthony says the market overall is contingent upon the volume of discarded candy wrappers.

“Infrastructure always follows volume,” he says. “If volume is not great enough, there’s not an economic incentive.”

The amount of waste generated by candy wrappers doesn’t match up to things like glass, paper and aluminum cans, which have a high presence in our waste stream and are thus almost always recycled. Waste management organizations are looking to get the bang for their buck when it comes to recyclables, and candy wrappers just don’t make the cut.

A Greener Package

Volume is a legitimate concern, but how can I satisfy my sweet tooth and save the planet at the same time?

An innovative company is finding a solution. Rodenburg Biopolymers is a family-owned business in the Netherlands leading the biopolymer industry. Rodenburg partners with various companies — like manufacturers and retailers — to develop biodegradable compounds for their products.

The geniuses behind one of our favorite candies, Mars (among other treats; you can thank them for ever-so-scrumptious M&Ms), partnered with Rodenburg to develop a bio-based packaging solution for their candies.

The project resulted in a food-grade polymer film compound called Solanyl. It is biodegradable, compostable and uses only a third of the energy oil-based materials — what candy wrappers are typically made of — use.

Snickers, another Mars product, made their eco-friendly European debut in 2016, and Rodenburg is dedicated to making sure more candies follow suit.

The response from the market is in full support of the new eco-friendly candy packaging. Now, Rodenburg is hoping that Mars will take their project to the U.S.

A Sweet Alternative

bags

Candy wrappers can be upcycled into consumer products such as laptop sleeves. Photo: Flickr/Dave Pinter

Creative folks have thought of all kinds of ways to repurpose candy wrappers. A quick search on the Internet for items made out of candy wrappers will generate page after page of handbags, wallets and even candy-wrapper jewelry.

Eco-conscious company TerraCycle can help you reduce your candy-wrapper-waste with their Zero Waste Box. Simply order the box, collect the waste, and ship it back to TerraCycle for recycling. TerraCycle will make sure it gets to where it needs to go.

The collected wrappers will be separated into their myriad of fibers and plastics. The fibers can then be either composted or recycled and the plastics are used to make new products.

Without TerraCycle, these wrappers would all end up in the landfill, polluting our planet.

Next time you reach for that sweet treat, think of the life cycle of that piece of candy. You don’t need to hold back — just plan to upcycle or recycle your wrappers.

Feature photo: Emily O’Chiu

This article was originally written by Becky Hammad on May 18, 2009. It was updated by Lauren Murphy on Oct. 20, 2017. 

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Comments

  1. I think candy wrappers serve an important purpose, because they make us feel safe about the food we are eating as it’s “factory-sealed.” It’s unfortunate that so many end up in the garbage, but hearing some of the crazy stories about people tampering with Halloween candy for kids makes me understand the need for wrappers.

  2. Another great way of “upscaling.” I recently read of a company that does similar things with candy wrappers, juice boxes and plastic bottles. Terracycle has partnered with non-profits and schools by paying a small amount for each item that is recycled and provided for them. In turn, Terracycle uses bottles to package their plant food or they create bags, pencil cases, etc. out of everything else.

    It’s nice to that people are starting to see the need to use the resources we have to the fullest extent possible.

  3. Perhaps now there needs to be more advertising so the recycled products can be seen and bought by consumers, such as (what are the particular stores that might carry them) where these recycled/reused products can be purchased, etc…maybe also a vendor/distributer at a Farmer’s Market, at Flea Markets?
    I guess my point is that not everyone will be able to know about the products if they are only marketed online (lots of people who are interested in environmental causes do not necessarily have computers) and we all know that if an item is not bought, it’s worth will go down and there will be no demand to make more of the item.
    It is a great thing that Terracycle, and others like them, are doing…I applaud their efforts!

  4. I have to find it hard to belive that a backpack like the one in the picture would be made of recycled materials. Especially since none of the package labels have been torn, and I don’t know anyone that opens the package without ripping the whole top or side off. Looks more like the materials were bought directly from the candy manufacturer.

  5. The article is very interesting. I always wondered about this each time my wrappers make it to the trash can. I would also like to feature it in my company’s Go Green newsletter. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get the full story when the links (repurpose candy wrappers and upcycling) lead you to a totally unrelated story (“Know Before You Go”™ About Beach Water Quality This Summer). Also the link for the candy wrapper jewlery has been moved and there is no redirection. If it is at all possible to get the links to these three stories/sites I would be most appreciative.

  6. OMG!!! I am not a weirdo after all!!! I want to recycle everything. (including candy wrappers and chip bags but I just didn’t know that you actually can) My kids are always telling me that there is something wrong with me because I do not like to throw everything in the trash much like they do. I try to recycle and repurpose as much as a can (even before this world went ‘green’). I am very excited that there are others out there in world that care about the environment!!!

  7. Its NOT just candy wrappers.
    There are HUGE amounts of mixed materials in food products that recycling depots won’t take. Many of these held ORGANIC and FAIR TRADED products: coffee, chips,snacks.
    This is RIDICULOUS.
    And it’s HYPOCRISY.!
    One other thing: ALL THOSE flimsy fabric bags made to replace plastic bags are ending up in the landfill.

  8. Those fabric reusable bags that seem ubiquitous now are actually mostly made with virgin petroleum as well, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The ones that I see the most are non-woven polypropylene, but some, like at Whole Foods are actually made of recycled PET bottles.

    This article doesn’t address a lot of things. The one problem nobody seems to want to admit is why this plastic is being used in the first place. Why aren’t companies taking responsibility for the waste they create? Why should consumers be the only ones responsible for this problem?

    I don’t personally buy candy unless it is organic/fair trade and natural, even when I do it is seldom because I don’t see how individually packaging anything in plastic is sustainable or economical. If we get back to local production and use materials that are safe to come in contact with food and are either recyclable or compostable, we solve this problem of huge amounts of wrappers ending up in the trash.

    I applaud what Terracycle is doing, cause they are at least trying to do something about our waste predicament, but I question the continuing viability of a business like them, especially considering their partnerships with these large candy makers, who are nothing more than players in our military-industrial complex of junk food producers that degrade our quality of health. Making business deals with Mars does not really strike me as something a “green” company would do. They are in a way encouraging unsustainable practices. I participate in the Terracycle brigades because that is what is available now, but I do question the company’s motives. They are in fact a profit-making business, so you have to question whether this is just a money-making scheme, or are they really doing this for the right reasons.

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  11. But HOW do you make it?!?!?! Links needed! Please help, because my mom says she’ll throw my wrappers away if I don’t start by the end of the month! HELP!!!

  12. During Halloween when we purchase large quantities..we collect all the candy bags and mail them back to the companies. They made them, let them deal w/ them.

    It may be passing the buck, but it does let them know there is a problem, and a need to solve it.

  13. Wow, its amazing how I stumbled upon this 😀 I had an obsession for collecting candy wrappers 3 years ago, I’m 17 now. I thought candy wrappers were really pretty and its a pity that I have to throw it away, so I ended up saving all the wrappers and I have a fine collection now. I brought this idea to my school where I encouraged people to save up their wrappers of all sorts, including chip bags for a green project I’ve been thinking for awhile. I wanted to do something and show how incredible our consumerism is…how how much wrappers that could of ended up in the landfill, but we can do something about it. I plan to make something useful out of these wrappers next year in June 2011 before I graduate! I want to show people what a huge difference we can make when we work together and put in our effort together:)

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