“It was 2am when I woke with a clear vision in my mind: what would it be like if I woke up in a crisp packet?”
It may sound like a Walter Mitty-type fantasy but Pen Huston’s early hour’s revelation in November last year has transformed the lives of hundreds of homeless people who now wake up in her bivvy bags made from upcycled crisp packets.
Huston describes the mission of her Crisp Packet Project as “giving life to single-use plastics and saving lives”; a combination of charity and sustainability that makes this a particularly impactful community initiative.
A bivvy bag can protect a sleeping bag for weeks in cold and wet weather. Crisp packets provide an ideal material because they are waterproof while the silver foil lining reflects the heat and keeps the body warmer for longer. They also happen to be among the least recycled types of packaging material – just four per cent of flexible packaging is currently recycled in the UK according to the waste charity WRAP, despite accounting for a quarter of all UK consumer plastic packaging.
Huston was volunteering for a local homeless charity, Surviving the Streets UK, when she came up with the idea for the Crisp Packet Project. The day after her eureka moment, she set about cleaning old crisps packets and fusing them together with an iron using surplus clear plastic collected from local supermarkets as a liner. The trial was a success, and a subsequent request on Facebook for people to donate more materials ended with Huston being inundated with parcels stuffed full of empty crisp packets.
In the space of a year, the project has grown into a nationwide network of volunteers making sleeping bags and other survival items for disadvantaged people in their own communities – from Inverness and South Tyneside in the north, to Dorchester and Canterbury in the south.
Huston runs the project out of The Art Shack, an art, craft and wellbeing space she has created for the local community in her home town of Hastings, East Sussex. Members of the public can send in their used crisp packets via post or take them to a network of drop-off points including local charity shops. Huston’s only requirement is that they are washed and cut open in advance since she no longer has the time to prepare the packets herself.
It takes 150 crisps packets to make a bivvy bag, which is placed outside of a sleeping bag to keep it dry and protected against the cold weather. The bags are distributed to people living on the streets as well as those living in houses but unable to afford to heat them.
Crisp packets are in many ways a symbol of our throwaway culture. Brits collectively munch through billions of packets of crisps a year but only a tiny proportion are ever recycled despite the technology being available to do so. Crisps are known as flexible plastics, a category which also includes products like food bags, films and chocolate wrappers. WRAP cites a “complex mix of challenges” that means only four per cent of that category ever gets recycled.
These challenges include poor product design and a lack of consistency in raw materials; limited collection infrastructure (very few local authorities accept crisp packets as part of household recycling collections); and a lack of recycling capacity.
“Citizens are frustrated by flexible plastics because our household bins are full of them, and they are a highly visible pollutant which are easily blown into waterways and hedgerows,” says Peter Maddox, director of WRAP UK.
Efforts to improve recycling rates are largely being led by businesses. Crisp giant Walkers has partnered with recycling company Terracycle to establish a network of public drop-off locations for crisps packets including schools and retail outlets. The crisp packets are then separated by plastic type, cleaned, and extruded into plastic pellets to make new recycled products such as outdoor furniture.
The big supermarkets are also looking to play their part. Asda recently opened its first dedicated sustainability store in Middleton, Leeds, which houses a crisp packet recycling point.
But while progress on recycling is slow and piecemeal, Huston need not worry about the supply of used crisp packets drying up. She says Walkers make the best crisp packets for bivvy bags because they are well insulated. Certain chocolate or confectionery wrappers can also be used, although some can be too thick to fuse.
Huston runs online workshops to teach people how to create the bags. It takes four hours to make a single bivvy bag and around an hour to make one of the smaller survival sheets that are also supplied to those in need. “Handing them out always makes your heart sing as you know how much love and time our volunteers have put into each one of our survival items and how much someone needs it,” Huston says. She adds that people are very grateful to receive them “even more so now the weather is drawing in”.
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the government asked councils to house homeless people to reduce the spread of the disease. Lockdown restrictions meant Huston and her volunteers couldn’t hand out bags for a number of weeks around the height of the pandemic in April, but they have since returned to weekly deliveries.
Crisp packets may ultimately go the way of other single-use plastic items, like straws and stirrers, and be banned or replaced by a more sustainable alternative “but while this fantastic life-saving material is here we must stop it from going to landfill and make something strong and long lasting with it”, says Huston.
The legacy of her own moment of inspiration looks set to endure for some time yet.