Plastics package: polls apart and stirring trouble

UKHospitality seeks a delay on stirrers ban, recycling rates are on the up – and our inbox is swamped by surveys. By David Burrows.

Here at the Package we have been considering a ban – a ban on consumer polls about plastic. Please do keep sending them – the “stats” give us a chuckle of a Friday afternoon when we sift through all the news scattered through our inboxes like polystyrene packaging on our local beach. However, we won’t be reporting on them. People are pissed off about single-use packaging. We. Get. It. And so does everyone else, so there’s no need to keep asking. Again. And again. And again.

Talking of bans, UKHospitality has urged the government to push back a proposed ban on plastic straws and stirrers. A consultation, which closed last week, sought views on whether October 2019 is “a sufficient timescale” for businesses to adapt. No way, suggested the trade body’s chief executive, Kate Nicholls. “Imposing a ban in such a short space of time may undermine measures that are already in place and increase burdens and costs.”

The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) wasn’t convinced by the idea of a ban from the get-go but noted there’s probably one coming from Brussels anyway (see November’s Package), so we shouldn’t waste too much time on it. Instead, the focus should be on eliminating the term “biodegradable” on packaging, the FPA said. MPs are apparently taking it to mean the same thing as “compostable”, which is just wrong. Businesses are also baffled.

For clarification, we asked the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association, which told us: “Compostable plastics used in consumer applications should not be labelled solely as biodegradable. Whilst they are indeed biodegradable, biodegradability per se is an unhelpful phrase that does not specify the time and place within which biodegradability takes place.

“To better define biodegradability we should talk about compostability, ie within a space, time and industrial process. For packaging, the UK & European standard BS EN 13432 defines this time, space, output and toxicity. The UK adopted this standard in 2000.”

Consumers are confused, too. They’ve been led to believe that biodegradable packaging will “disappear to nothing within a very short period”, said the FPA. Many people “erroneously believe it is acceptable to litter biodegradable packaging”. Indeed, cast your eyes around some of the “environmentally friendly” plastic alternatives being chucked about and it’s easy to see how this has happened.

Take Gone, a brand that, according to reports, “provides a hassle-free, eco-friendly solution for on-the-go athletic nutrition”. How? Existing products use a plastic-coated foil, while Gone uses “a combination of tapioca and potato that is first broken down by acid – in this case, lemon juice and white vinegar – and is then bound back by vegetable glycerin and agar, a type of gelatin derived from seaweed”. This “allows athletes to dispose of the package immediately with no negative environmental impact; it can be thrown on the side of the road where rainfall and local critters will break it down in a matter of days.” In other words, this is a product designed to encourage littering – and there’s even a video to show you just how to do it.

Thankfully, Keep Britain Tidy and DEFRA have just launched a new campaign to “crack down on littering in England”. Mars Wrigley Confectionery, Greggs, McDonald’s and PepsiCo UK are all backing the Keep It, Bin It project, which features “poignant images of wildlife eating and getting tangled in litter, contrasted against typical excuses for people give for dropping litter”. It’s the first government-backed national anti-litter campaign in a generation, apparently, and comes with the strapline “No more rubbish excuses” (which resonates well right across Westminster currently).

For some reason, that also brings to mind this November interview with Patrick Thomas, the founder of the World Plastics Council. “Plastic is way too valuable to throw into the sea; it shouldn’t be there … it’s way too valuable to bury in a landfill; that makes no sense whatsoever,” he said. And yet, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, after a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion (£63-94 billion) annually, is lost to the economy. In the UK, plastic packaging recycling rates might also be nine or 10 percentage points lower than the “official” figure of 39%, according to analysis by the consultancy Eunomia.

It is interesting to listen to the rest of Thomas’s interview, because he starts talking about the circular economy. “We all have to start with the premise that we all believe that that product which we are thinking of today as waste can actually be a feedstock, can actually be a raw material, for another useful item.” Feedstock is the interesting word there – does he mean feedstock for energy from waste, for example? At a Westminster forum back in January, Liz Goodwin recalled one of the first meetings she went to as WRAP CEO. “It was with the British Plastics Federation and they told me exactly that – all plastics should be burnt. I think if you went back to them now they would have a different story.” Hmmm.

One item that has seen marked improvements in recycling is paper cups. There are now more than 4,500 paper cup recycling points in the UK for cups (bring banks and in-store takeback schemes), and this has resulted in the recycling rate rising from one in 400 cups two years ago to one in 25 this year. Next year, it’ll be up to one in 12. “The figures speak for themselves,” said Mark Pawsey, the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on packaging. Another way of looking at it is that the recycling rate is 4% currently and will rise to 8% next year.

This isn’t to say the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group is greenwashing the figures (note: we’ve been unpicking these figures and others in its latest report and will have more analysis soon). But 8% won’t be enough to appease those backing a latte levy. There is only passing mention in the report of reduction – which is of course top of the waste hierarchy (the DEFRA secretary, Michael Gove, might want to share that information with his counterparts at the Department for Health after they launched a 12-week consultation on healthier choices in food to go with an image of a disposable cup).

But who cares about all that? Well, we don’t want to come over all curmudgeonly, but the waste hierarchy is one of the fundamental elements of the European waste management policy (it’s enshrined in the Waste Framework Directive, and transposed into UK law in the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011). Applying it is a legal duty on all producers of waste, but food businesses have for years just ignored it. “With little threat of enforcement of this obligation, many businesses in the UK seem unmotivated to act and compliance appears to be literally no more than a tick box exercise,” noted the Eunomia consultants Sam Taylor and Peter Jones in a blogpost in August 2015.

Have things changed? We asked Phil Conran, the director of 360 Environmental consultancy and chairman of the government’s Advisory Committee on Packaging. “The England and Wales regulations require the transferee to confirm that they have applied the waste hierarchy. The problem is that it is completely unenforced – and probably unenforceable – and the only people who take any notice of it tends to be ISO 14001 auditors.” So there are regulatory drivers that, in theory, should ensure that waste producers ensure anything that could be reused or recycled is reused or recycled (and that all waste collectors should offer separate collection services). But in practice this doesn’t always happen. “This is one of the complaints,” Conran explained, “that where it becomes difficult to enforce, the agencies don’t bother”. Or there is no one left in the office to deal with it following mass movement from the Environment Agency to DEFRA to help deliver Brexit.

That hasn’t stopped the likes of Boston Tea Party going all out for the top of the hierarchy with bans on disposable cups. Others are trying to make reusables more convenient. In London, for example, Prufrock Coffee has started a programme called Prufrock KeepCup Exchange – customers bring back a dirty cup, which is dishwashed at the shop’s convenience, and get a fresh one. The idea, the assistant manager Sam Cornish told us, is to take away one of the main deterrents of using KeepCups – having to clean the cup after use. Not only does this system make using a reusable cup easier, the flow behind the coffee bar isn’t interrupted either.

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