The coronavirus crisis has given single-use packaging a shot in the arm. In time, reusable systems can rally but it won’t be easy, says David Burrows.
In March, the Office for National Statistics added reusable bottles and mugs to its “inflation basket” of goods for the first time. The decision reflected “a growing number of people switching away from single-use products”, in particular packaging and plastic. Refillable water stations have sprung up here, there and everywhere and many coffee shops now offer discounts for bringing a (fashionable) reusable cup; some even charge for single-use cups (a notably more effective nudge than a discount). Calling it a reusable revolution would be a stretch, but campaigners were confident they were making progress.
And then bam: Starbucks announced the measures it would be taking to protect its staff and customers, and to control the spread of Covid-19. "Out of an abundance of caution, we are pausing the use of personal cups or tumblers in our stores across the UK,” said Robert Lynch, the chain’s Europe spokesman, on April 5th. There was no detail relating to how or why Starbucks had come to this conclusion; no government advice had been issued (and still hasn’t). The decision, in the midst of a global pandemic, was reportedly made internally.
Whether this was smart or not depends on who you ask. Starbucks claimed it was making “proactive decisions that are grounded in transparency and science”. However, the science on Covid-19s spread and stability in the environment is far from clear-cut; and perhaps explains the reluctance of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) or Public Health England to offer any guidance. Few viral or health experts have entered the debate, either.
This has left a void into which businesses have stepped. These companies are not health buffs but in moving first Starbucks became the de facto specialist in hygiene standards for foodservice businesses. And the message to the rest of the sector was clear: follow us or you are irresponsible. So they did. Costa Coffee, for example, said it would no longer accept reusable cups; one of a number of actions the Coca-Cola owned chain was taking “because we believe it’s the best and safest way to continue to serve great Costa Coffee”.
Single-use was now apparently the safest option and this idea has spread quickly. That the cafés then shut up shop as the UK government locked the country down was irrelevant: intentionally or not these businesses had planted a seed of doubt in consumers’ minds. Reusable cups that were earlier in the month seen as green were now grubby. “Think about the retailers – they have to accept that [reusable] cup and I get why they’d have that fear. [But] how do we get over that?” noted one campaigner, who wanted to remain anonymous.
NGOs were certainly reticent to go on record and defend reusable cups. The waters were muddied enough so it was risky to wade in when so little was known about the spread of Covid-19 on surfaces? They also didn’t to press the FSA for a knee-jerk reaction either, which could set in stone the opinion that single-use is the safer option (“the faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory”, said one). There would be a time and a place for serious debate. “I don’t think anyone’s open to listening to a bunch of environmentalists now,” one experienced campaigner told me in mid March.
But their silence has given supporters of single-use packaging a shot in the arm. In the past month, those lobbying against policies designed to reduce consumption of single-use packaging have rallied together in a bid not to waste this most crippling of crises. Prior to the spread of Covid-19, as politicians raced through new regulation – from plastic taxes and charges on certain items to outright bans on others – packaging industry lobbyists had demanded more leniency. The impact on employment, consumption and the economy, not to mention consumer convenience, were all trotted out. Hygiene was also mentioned, almost in passing, hung out there as a possible concern. Whether it was credible mattered not: who needs proof so long as the perception took hold?
Then along came Covid-19. The manna from heaven pro-plastics groups had been waiting for; the perfect vector for spreading their hygiene story. And they’ve wasted no time in using it to turn disposable packaging, and in particular plastic, from sinner into saint.
In the US, the focus has been on plastic bags. The plastics industry there is “using Covid-19 to exploit people’s fears around sanitation and hygiene to interfere with legislation banning or regulating the use of single-use plastic bags”, according to Greenpeace, The Plastics Industry Association also wrote to the US Department of Health and Human Services urging it to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics”.
In Europe, trade body European Plastics Converters last week wrote to European Commissioners demanding they delay or even totally rethink their Single-use Plastics Directive, which bans certain items and sets stiff reduction targets for others. The letter suggests the Commission forgot all about hygiene when it wrote the laws and the current crisis is showing how remarkably useful and safe plastic is. “Single-use plastics are not easily substitutable, in particular in keeping the same hygienic properties to safeguard consumers. Many independent studies repeatedly show that plastics [sic] is the material of choice for ensuring hygiene, safety as well as preservation from contamination.”
Here in the UK it’s no different. Industry bodies have moved quickly to pressure (over-stretched) politicians into postponing a number of new policies. The Foodservice Packaging Association, for instance, has written to the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, in a bid to delay his planned ban on plastic cutlery, plates and expanded polystyrene by a year. This would enable “further consultation to allow for expert food safety and hygiene evidence and data to be presented, particularly by the customers of these items. This will include usage patterns during the current crisis.” This suggests politicians need to look again at their policies because there is evidence missing. And yet, in the same letter, the FPA also refers to “hygienic single-use products that virtually eliminate the risk of cross contamination”. That’s a bold claim, but where is the evidence?
Indeed, there is much talk of “studies” and “research” on both sides of the Atlantic but where are these and why aren’t they being used to back up the claims being made? They’re industry-funded, so my hunch is that they’re extremely limited with little consideration for reuse. Indeed, what has been forgotten in all this is that the kind of reusable revolution that’s required to deliver a circular economy, not to mention help meet climate change targets, doesn’t involve a few people bringing their own cups. “The FreiburgCup scheme is where we need to be,” said one resource consultant.
Up to 70% of the German city’s coffee shops are involved in the deposit and return scheme for reusable cups, which is as convenient and clean as any single-use system – but far more sustainable. If this kind of system really isn’t as hygienic as single-use cups, then what does that mean for every single restaurant, canteen or pub that uses, washes and reuses cups, plates, cutlery and glasses hundreds, if not thousands of times? Are people really suggesting that everything we eat off or drink out of needs to be disposable now?
Tom Szaky is CEO of Terracycle, which runs The Loop, a global initiative piloting reusable and refillable systems and involving the likes of Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and Tesco (which is due to start trialling here in the summer). Products are delivered in specially designed packaging that can be used over and over again; empties are collected, washed, refilled and restocked. It’s a 21st century take on milk deliveries with plenty of new tech. “Walk into one of our cleaning facilities and you wouldn’t even recognise the dishwasher,” Szaky explained on a phone call from the US.
Indeed, these are operations that have been audited and approved by some of the biggest food businesses in the world. When we spoke, Covid-19 wasn’t registering in customer queries. March was actually “the best month ever” for the programme. “Tesco is still fiercely committed to this,” Szaky added. “All retailers have reinforced reuse as part of their strategy. Reuse is already a massive part of our lives. People aren’t going to change how annoyed they are about the waste problem.”
But they might. Those packaging, food and drink businesses that campaigners have targeted are now fighting for their lives due to Covid-19. The UK’s hospitality and foodservice sector disappeared (temporarily one hopes) almost overnight on March 20th. Some packaging suppliers have moved quickly to aid the NHS, as well as the grocery sector as consumption patterns shifted almost completely to in-home. There are even suppliers looking to provide components for ventilators. These deserve credit as the country comes together to fight the coronavirus but what happens afterwards? Can they pick up the reusable cup where they left off?
This crisis has given life to single-use packaging and, buoyed by their reputational bounce, the industry will be calling for much more than a stay of execution post Covid-19. Those championing reusables – campaigners, businesses, politicians, as well as initiatives run by the likes of Terracycle and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – must therefore rally quickly. If they don’t, the revolution they’ve been working towards will be almost impossible to resuscitate. As one senior source noted soberly: this could set us back years.