The Plastics Package: cup shocks and Euro rivalries

In Footprint’s latest monthly briefing, Michael Gove’s coffee lands him in hot water while Westminster and Brussels vie to out-green each other. By David Burrows.

The World Cup’s under way, so to adapt the famous quote from the former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson: “Plastics, bloody hell.” It’s been another fertile four weeks of activity. McDonald’s is phasing out plastic straws in the UK, Morrisons is scrapping plastic bags in favour of paper in its fruit and veg aisles and Michael Gove is switching from a reusable cup back to a throwaway one. “A disposable mug is a good description of Michael Gove,” quipped one Daily Mail reader.

Gove’s media mugging came after he took a paper cup into a hearing with the House of Commons environment committee. In the current climate, and given the environment secretary’s hyperbole on the subject of plastic (it gives him nightmares), you could liken it to Ferguson turning up at Old Trafford with a Liverpool scarf on. Of course, the environment secretary wasn’t to blame: “I’m afraid it’s the House of Commons canteen that provided this,” he shot back. It was too late.

Gove, if you recall, reportedly dished out reusable cups to all his cabinet colleagues. The containers were a symbol of the government’s commitment to: (a) drink more coffee (giving the impression of industriousness) and (b) reduce plastic waste (very, very slowly over the next 24.5 years). If every member of the cabinet holds these cups it also shows they are one-and-all committed to the promised land of a “green Brexit” (no matter what the recently published environmental principles and governance bill suggests).

News in from Pret A Manger is that sales of reusable cups have increased tenfold, with 85,000 drinks a week served in customers’ own mugs. Doubling the penalty for using paper-plastic ones from 25p to 50p has made all the difference. “An organic filter coffee for 49p must be the best-value cup of coffee in the UK,” said its CEO, Clive Schlee. Imagine the impact if the charge were doubled again to £1. Of course, that would mean that Pret would have to pay customers a penny if they ordered a filter coffee using their own cup (but what’s a penny when you’re about to be bought for a reported £1.5 billion?).

The disposable cup is one of 10 single-use plastic items that will be subject to new EU laws to reduce and prevent marine litter. There will be different measures for different products. For instance, the plan for cups is for member states to set reduction targets, extend producer responsibility and raise public awareness. However, plastic cutlery, plates, stirrers and straws will be banned. The UK is consulting on similar bans, so get set for a trans-Channel race to sign off legislation.

Brussels and Westminster have been spitting tweets at one another for months to determine who has the better anti-plastics policies. Last week, in a hearing with Holyrood’s environment committee, Gove promised that his resources and waste strategy will be ready by the autumn. Yes, that means it’s being brought forward. We know! Meanwhile, the EU Council and European Parliament have promised to treat single-use plastic regulations as a matter of priority, according to a report by ENDS Europe.

However, Plastics Europe, which represents the plastics industry, urged the European Commission to “avoid shortcuts”. Bans are “not the solution”, it said, while alternatives “may not be more sustainable”. What to replace plastics with is a question that refuses to go away – not least because no one has an answer.

However, what we do know that we didn’t last month is how to categorise plastics. A new system developed by RTF partners (the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, the Environmental Services Association, the Resource Association and WRAP) has split the products into five groups based on the length of time they are used:

  1. Very short use phase (less than one day), small format e.g. cotton buds, plastic stirrers.
  2. Very short use phase (less than one day), medium format e.g. disposable cups, takeaway containers.
  3. Short use phase (from one day up to two years) e.g. food and cosmetics packaging.
  4. Medium use phase (from two to 12 years) e.g. car parts, electronics.
  5. Long use phase (more than 12 years) e.g. cladding, window frames.

So group one is ripe for “elimination” or biodegradable alternatives, while for group two items there could be reusable alternatives, but we’d need more research to see if compostables could work. The BBIA, the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association, is none too happy with the thrust of the report, though. There is too much “plastic is fantastic” and not enough on reduction, said the organisation’s MD, David Newman. “The resulting report looks a lot like deliberate disinformation by plastics enthusiasts, who evidently feel threatened by the rise of compostable bioplastics,” he said.

Newman also had a bone to pick with Susan Goldberg, the editor of National Geographic, who published an article that has caused BBIA members “a certain amount of dismay” due to the inclusion of a “series of misconceptions around bioplastics”. Of course, it’s hard not to get baffled by bioplastics – it’s a confusing term in itself, Newman admitted. So if he’s going to pick a fight with everyone who gets in a muddle then he had better order more coffee in. Just don’t ask Michael Gove to deliver it.

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