Comment: Plastic bans barely scratch the surface

It’s full steam ahead for single-use plastic bans but it is the rush to reuse that we should be cheering on, says David Burrows.

Plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers are all for the chop come October 1st, 2023. The market restrictions, trailed first in the Mail on Sunday and officially announced six days later on January 14th, also include compostable, biobased and biodegradable plastics. 

The news surprised no-one. Scotland already has such bans in place, and in December Wales confirmed it was following suit. The EU has had them in force (under its single-use plastics directive, or SUPD) for around two years. 

This didn’t prevent industry groups dragging their heels. Give us more time so (some of) our members can keep selling this cheap unrecyclable stuff is the message from the Foodservice Packaging Association. The impact of these bans on small businesses should not be ignored (the big firms are well prepared for all this). Polystyrene containers are far cheaper than the chips contained within them but move to a paper-based alternative and the costs (and carbon) can climb, as the FPA rightly notes. 

These are fair points – if we were only talking about single-use. These bans certainly began life as attacks on the most littered single-use plastics, and any unintended environmental consequences (like carbon) be damned. But reading between the lines of the government’s response to the consultation on these bans, ministers appear to be getting the message that banning plastic alone is not enough. “We would like to see a shift away from single-use items of all materials to reusable or refillable alternatives where possible,” Defra noted.

The department also included trays and bowls as well as plates in the scope of the new restrictions because if they weren’t in there “we will simply see a switch from using single-use plastic plates to bowls and trays rather than reusable alternatives”. Plastic plates, bowls, and trays that are used as packaging can be used in eat-in and takeaway settings butwe strongly encourage businesses to explore how they can reduce the use of these single-use items and move to reusable alternatives instead”.

Scotland, which is ahead of the game on all this, has been running trials with small foodservice businesses to see how best to reduce and reuse packaging on the back of the plastic bans. As well as reusable cups and containers, restaurants working with Zero Waste Scotland have been removing napkins and trialling new packaging for chips that has a “kink” in it to hold any condiments. The UK government is already looking at banning single-use sachets, which are a nightmare to recycle.

Sachets are also in the cross-hairs for EU policymakers, who recently proposed bans on single-use packaging for individual servings of everything from condiments and creamers to sugars and seasoning. The new packaging proposals also included a ban on single-use packaging for food and drink filled and consumed on the premises, as well as targets for reusable cups and containers that will seriously disrupt the single-use models on which many foodservice businesses have been built.

The UK government will be watching all this closely. Scotland and Wales will want to mimic what the EU does and maybe, just maybe, England does too. “I am determined that we shift away from a single-use culture,” said environment minister Rebecca Pow. 

These plastic bans may have been a long time coming but single-use is fast becoming unfashionable. The writing has been on the wall since the days of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s crusade against disposable coffee cups – and foodservice businesses understand this. In recent discussions I have had there has been support for a latte levy (with funds ploughed back into reuse systems) as well as pre-competitive collaboration on reuse (the sensitive subject of standardised and unbranded packaging is a topic of live debate). There is also acceptance of the fundamental changes to business models that are needed. “Can we really justify offering single-use packaging when people are dining or drinking in?” wonders the sustainability lead at a UK coffee chain. Sooner rather than later, they will have no choice.

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