Crisps & Snacks: environmental and social impacts
The major environmental impact of crisps and snacks derives from their damaging packaging. Although the bags might look like they are made from aluminium, they are actually made of metallised plastic film. Contrary to popular belief, the packets are recyclable, although the process is not economically viable for most recycling sites since there are several layers of plastic and metal fused together. However, Walkers is leading a change in the industry. The company received a lot of consumer pressure to improve the sustainability of its packaging. As a result, Walkers has funded a Terracycle recycling program for crisp packets with 1,600 public drop-off locations.
The ingredients within crisps also have their own environmental implications. For instance, in the UK, 96% of crisps use UK-grown potatoes, with crisps accounting for 13% of total potato consumption. Potatoes account for 50% of total water used to irrigate crops in the UK. Furthermore, potatoes, as well as other crops such as oil seeds (i.e. sunflower seeds), require more fertilisers and pesticides than their arable crop counterparts. Finally, another important environmental consequence is the use of unsustainable palm oil for frying, which has negative impacts on biodiversity due to monocropping and deforestation.
In the UK, 20% of children aged 10 to 11 were obese in 2017/18, and 14% were overweight. Although crisps and savoury snacks tend to be healthier than other junk foods, they should be eaten in moderation. In relation to these obesity statistics, one study reports that children consume more than twice the amount of salt compared to the government guidelines. England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, considered recommending taxes on crisps and other unhealthy snacks in order to reduce excessive salt and sugar intake, and to cover the NHS’s costs of tackling obesity and diabetes.
Aside from excessive salt contents, one in five crisp varieties contain high levels of a carcinogen called acrylamide, which increases the risk of developing cancer and affects young children the most. It is considered a public health issue by the European Food Safety Authority. This chemical arises when starchy foods, like potatoes, are cooked for long periods of time in high temperatures.