Are straw pledges bending the truth?

A Footprint investigation has cast doubt on the integrity of plastic-free straw pledges because compostable replacements are not being composted. Nick Hughes reports.

First it was carrier bags, then coffee cups and now straws are the focus of the backlash against plastic packaging.

In the past six months, a host of major pub and restaurant chains have pledged to stop offering plastic straws to customers and instead provide compostable or biodegradable alternatives on request. They have generated positive PR for their efforts and ensured the topic of single-use plastic has remained on the public’s radar; this following the outrage that greeted images from the BBC’s Blue Planet II series of plastic littering the marine environment.

A Footprint investigation, however, has found little evidence that eco-friendly straws are actually being disposed of in the most responsible way. Some businesses admit to not actually composting compostable straws at all while others concede they have little idea where recyclable paper straws are ending up.

Footprint’s scrutiny of straws’ pledges follows concerns raised by waste contractors that the volume of commitments to replace plastic with eco-friendly alternatives exceeds the capacity of the current waste infrastructure to deal with them.

Ei Group, the largest pub company in the UK, was the latest to go public with a pledge, announcing on January 24th that it has removed plastic straws across its managed estate nationwide and replaced them with an environmentally-friendly alternative. The press release notes the new straws are “fully compostable” and breakdown in just 12 weeks. Footprint understands the straws are made of polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic substitute derived from plants, which will indeed biodegrade within three months in a controlled composting environment. Yet despite the clear implication that the straws are being composted, the company confirms that this is not currently the case. Instead, it says the straws are being disposed of through “dry mixed recycling or our general waste collections”.

The environmental implications of not composting PLA straws are potentially significant. “If the biodegradable straws go into the general waste and that waste then goes to landfill, then that is actually worse than having plastic in there since the biodegradation will generate methane,” explains Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at Eunomia Research & Consulting.

Ei Group notes that it has made a commitment that none of its waste will go direct to landfill; but even if PLA is being disposed of with other single-use plastics the straws, which are not recyclable, risk contaminating the entire waste stream. And if PLA straws end up in a marine environment they pose exactly the same risk to marine life as plastic.

This isn’t to say that compostable straws don’t have terrific potential as a sustainable alternative to plastic. The issue is that the UK’s waste infrastructure is not set up to support their responsible disposal. Speaking at a recent conference organised by the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA), Charlie Trousdell, chairman of the Organic Recycling Group, explained that there are around 50 sites throughout the UK that can, in principle, accept certified compostable packaging along with their green and food waste. But in a subsequent blogpost he noted that in a Q&A session at the same conference “a couple of speakers said they had tried to get composters interested and been told 'no [they] couldn’t take it’”.

In theory, compostable packaging could be sent to In Vessel Composting Plants (IVCs), where systems ensure composting takes place in an enclosed environment, with accurate temperature control and monitoring. However, IVCs are few and far between and gate fees are higher than those for Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plants according to WRAP figures, thus offering no financial incentive to divert compostable packaging to IVCs.

As for AD plant operators, as David Newman, managing director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association told Footprint in an interview last month, they are likely to strip out all packaging materials at the start of the AD process and send them to incineration or landfill as they can slow their process and in some cases, such as with compostable coffee pods, won’t actually decompose.

Biodegradable packaging in general is often a problem for waste management companies, says Eunomia’s Hilton. “If you’re a pub company with a food waste collection and your contractor is dealing with an IVC plant or AD site that understands that straws in the food waste will be compostable then that might not be a problem. But that requires quite a level of sophistication. Generally speaking the receiving site will see what appears to be plastic in the food waste and reject the whole load as being contaminated.”

Hilton says that one alternative is for the pub to separate straws from food waste and send them to the site separately; but that is unlikely to happen in a pub environment with limited space, he adds.

Other commitments by food chains appear less impressive in practice than might be inferred through public statements. All Bar One, owned by Mitchells & Butlers, has phased out plastic straws from its bars and is offering what it describes on its website as “eco-friendly options”. However, Mitchells & Butlers confirms the new product is made from recyclable plastic, which is not compostable, and the straws are currently being added to the pub chain’s general waste bins, with some sifting for plastics being carried out by its waste providers after collection. The company adds that it is looking at other alternative products on the market.

One potential solution that is favoured by experts is to replace plastic straws with 100% biodegradable and recyclable paper straws. “If companies really need straws, paper ones that are both recyclable and biodegradable are preferable since they can be recycled if mixed with a card collection and will do far less damage if they find their way into marine environments,” says Hilton.

Pret A Manger, Wetherspoon and Wagamama are just three examples of high street chains that have already switched, or are in the process of switching, to paper alternatives. Yet Footprint has found these businesses are unable to say for certain how the straws are being recycled, if at all.

Pret admits that it doesn’t currently have this information as it works out the logistics of a new trial to introduce paper straws to a select number of stores.

Wetherspoon says its straws are made from 100% virgin paper that is sourced sustainably from Japan. However, the pub chain is unable to confirm exactly which waste stream the straws are ending up in. A spokesman says that although straws will be recycled subject to spoilage, at this stage it can’t confirm whether this will be via an organic waste collection service or a dry mixed recycling service.

Wagamama plans to switch from plastic to biodegradable paper straws from Earth Day on April 22nd, until which time it will only hand out straws to customers who request them. Yet the restaurant chain is not forthcoming with a request for information on the processes it will put in place to ensure the straws are being recycled properly.

It’s hard to be too critical of businesses who have identified a problem and are trying to act on it – many of their rivals have yet to get out of the blocks. But what is apparent is that in the dash to be seen to be taking the issue seriously, businesses are making knee-jerk decisions which are solving some problems but potentially creating new ones.

And the issue extends beyond businesses to the entire supply chain. Food chains are sandwiched between packaging suppliers keen to sell their “green” packaging at a significant premium, and waste contractors who charge them to deal with it. It’s clear from Footprint’s findings that the two ends of the supply chain are entirely out of sync, which makes the job of the food business – to source an eco-friendly product and dispose of it responsibly – all the more difficult. A spokesperson for waste recycling contractor SWR says: “We certainly recognise this is a major issue and are working with our clients towards a thorough and sustainable solution.”

Experts are in agreement that an obvious first step – and an automatic win – is to only offer a straw if a customer specifically requests one. Many businesses are doing just that. All Bar One reported that in just three weeks it saved 91,000 straws from going into landfill by removing straws from the bar area.

As for compostable alternatives, for all their green credentials the UK’s infrastructure must improve before they become a commercially viable packaging option at scale. Trousdell recently issued a plea to IVCs that if they work with the right supplier there is a huge opportunity to increase business by being prepared to accept compostable packaging inputs. “As a result we may see more IVCs open to the idea in the coming weeks,” he said.

Compostable packaging supplier, Vegware, meanwhile has launched its own composting collection service across Scotland called Close the Loop, which it plans to extend to regions of England in 2018. The company’s recycling advisor, Kate Chambers, says the current appetite to improve foodservice recycling could be the catalyst which allows Vegware to create UK-wide coverage.

Straw pledges have provided food businesses with a PR win and may in time provide the impetus for a recycling revolution. But current realities don’t match the industry’s rhetoric. Now is the time to let actions speak louder than words.

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