Can reuse roadmap really drive change?

An ambitious set of targets for ramping up the use of reusable materials is welcome, but the plan is let down by a lack of business engagement, writes David Burrows.

WHAT’S NEW? Campaigners at City to Sea and consultants at Eunomia have together produced a “roadmap” to help foodservice companies reduce disposable packaging and encourage reuse.

GIVE ME THE TOP LINE. Ok, so the roadmap is basically a list of targets for cafés, takeaways and fast food joints to meet. All are stretching. Some are sensible. A couple are extremely ambitious.

WHAT KIND OF TARGETS? By 2022 they want 25% of cups to be reusable (and by 2025 it’s 75%). Tough but doable. The pre-covid rate was well under 5% and confidence has been hit thanks to some major outlets banning reusables. A few have introduced contactless models but some are still sticking with single-use – including for dining in.

The finding that only 50% of the brands serving coffees offered discounts is a surprise. Charges for cups rather than discounts would be better (research shows they are more effective, as did an investigation by Footprint). As would some marketing oomph. In visiting outlets, the researchers found 83% of contemporary fast food chains didn’t promote reusable cups at all.

ARE THERE OTHER TARGETS? Yes. They want 100% of single-use plastic (SUP) cutlery removed for eat-in by 2021; then 75% of forks, spoons and knives used for eat-in to be reusable by 2025.

Only 53% of the 15 businesses offering coffee served it in ‘proper’ cups, while only 20% of eat-in venues provided reusable cutlery (disposables are dirt cheap while dishwashers cost time and money). These levels have fallen further due to covid: Costa Coffee, Wimpy and Paterisserie Valerie are the chains that have kept ceramics and reusable cutlery; all others have reverted to disposable plastic or paper for dining in.

From next year disposable sachets should be banned for eat-in, according to the roadmap. Restaurants have actually switched away from dispensers recently (in part due to the UK government’s covid-safe guidance).

Those targets are easy compared with the one for takeaway containers: 10% sold in reusables by 2022. Given our pandemic penchant for food deliveries this has to be an area to focus on. But the big delivery platforms remain steadfastly anti-reuse, it seems. Perhaps McDonald’s entry into the fray next year as part of TerraCycle’s Loop will (Mc)shake things up?

SO WHICH COMPANIES DID THEY ASSESS? The top 20 high street food-to-go operators (by sales turnover). So: Caffè Nero, Costa Coffee, Greggs, Patisserie Valerie, Pret A Manger, Starbucks, Subway, Benugo, Eat, Itsu, Leon, Five Guys, Wasabi, Burger King, Dixy Chicken, Chicken Cottage, KFC, McDonald’s, Pepe’s Piri Piri and Wimpy. Most have struggled during covid, with many shrinking their estates (Eat has closed permanently).

What’s clear from the research is that there is little acknowledgement of the waste hierarchy. Efforts to push reuse might be poor, but recycling policies are equally so. Only two out of the 18 chains that didn’t provide table service offered consistent front-of-house recycling across all outlets. There was also no evidence of food waste being collected separately.

IT ALL SEEMS RATHER DISAPPOINTING. You could say that. However, if you pick out some of the things these chains are doing and put them together you’d probably get a pretty resource efficient business – one that’s focused on reuse and reducing waste. This would actually have given the whole project more impact – a graphic perhaps of a café or restaurant highlighting the best reuse, reduction and recycling policies (there is an interesting piece of work to be done in reusable milk containers for example) and the brands pioneering them.

Indeed, welcome as the research is, it lacks detailed examples of good practice. If 83% of outlets weren’t promoting reusable cups, what were the other 17% doing? It doesn’t really say specifically. It’s also let down by the fact there’s zero insight from or engagement with the sector.

SO HOW DO CAMPAIGNERS PLAN TO MEET THOSE TARGETS THEN? Good question. They’ve been engaging some of the brands through a “taskforce” called Repeat but it’s not quite clear what’s been achieved. As well as the targets there is a call for more transparency and for chains to publicise their plastic packaging footprint like Iceland (a pretty pointless exercise unless set in the context of all packaging regardless of material).

The Foodservice Packaging Association said simply: “If applied to our sector, City to Sea’s proposals would likely result in the demise of the foodservice sector.” Will businesses be equally unenthusiastic about all this? City to Sea has written to the CEOs of brands in its research so they can help develop the roadmap. Engagement could be even trickier given that there will be another assessment of the top chains next year and this time it will rank them.

There was no league table this year given the pandemic’s impact on the sector. Foodservice brands are struggling, that much is certain. Reliance on disposables has also increased. And yet businesses are realising how quickly they – and customers – can adapt. Behaviour is changing and could well continue to do so quite rapidly: banned from sitting in to enjoy coffee in a proper cup, maybe more of us will relish the future prospect of sitting down for a flat white and a sandwich rather than rushing off with it?

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