Costa cup policy sparks return of reusables

More than 125 experts have joined forces to reassure businesses that reusables are safe. But could the actions of Britain’s largest coffee shop chain carry more weight? By David Burrows

Reusable packaging systems can be used safely during the current pandemic, according to a statement signed by more than 125 experts from 19 countries. “The bottom line is that reusable items are safe to use when cleaned with soap and water, and there is no substitute for thorough hygiene,” noted the short statement, which was picked up by the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph and iNews.

The Covid-19 crisis has certainly triggered heated discussions about the suitability and safety of reuse systems during a pandemic. Single-use has been given a new lease of life, in part thanks to demand for personal protective equipment (PPE). However major foodservice brands helped tip the balance after they stopped accepting reusables out of what Starbucks called “an abundance of caution”.

Pret told Footprint last week that it had “paused the use of reusable cups as a precautionary measure to ensure the safety of our customers and team members”. The chain did not however provide any evidence for how it had come to the conclusion that single-use cups were safer.

So will the new Greenpeace-coordinated statement do its job of reassuring retailers and consumers that reusables are safe during Covid-19?

The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) certainly doesn’t think so. “On first sight [the announcement] could lead operators to believing this science is in place,” said Martin Kersh, executive director, in a statement. “However, on closer examination the evidence presented is the opinions of the scientists named. The priority must be to protect operators’ employees and it is vital they feel safe and protected.”

This is why one line on the Costa website may prove more powerful than the opinion of those 125 or so experts: “We are accepting reusable cups in stores and rewarding those customers with a 25p discount on any handcrafted drink.”

That was posted on June 18th, as part of an update on the “new look and feel” of stores, as the chain continued to re-open stores (with a target of 1,100 by today). In a statement sent to Footprint, Costa said it was able to reintroduce reusable cups having “temporarily updated our instructions for team members around how to manage and handle reusable cups in light of Covid-19 – with minimal contact and enhanced hygiene procedures”.

As the UK’s largest operator by some margin, this move is significant. The spokesperson wouldn’t say how customers have reacted so far or provide any further details on how this new low-contact system works. Further insight would be invaluable to a sector that has been left baffled by this particular topic in recent weeks.

Anecdotal evidence from Scotland suggests some councils are telling takeaways to only use disposables, so campaigners will be delighted to see some companies standing firm. In a blog last week, Celena Fernandez, head of environment at Compass Group UK & Ireland, reassured operators that “… it is still possible to operate with reusable crockery and cutlery for customers dining in,” provided personal hygiene and ware-washing practices are followed.

Fernandez also backed reusable cups, so long as (1) the customer’s cup is clean, and they can hold on to their lid; (2) the barista doesn’t touch the customer’s cup directly; instead they can use a separate ceramic mug to make the drink and then pour into the customers cup; and (3) the customer reapplies their own lid.

How to test the cup is clean in the first place is, by sight, impossible. There is “no point in saying reusables should be hygienically clean,” FPA’s Kersh explained. “The public need to know the exact procedure for cleaning them including the water temperature.”

It’s worth noting that the guidance for takeaways and delivery firms from the Food Standards Agency on reusable containers during Covid-19 suggests:

  • making sure staff do not touch the customer’s equipment. You can ask customers to leave their cups on the counter and then pour the drink into the cup from your own container.
  • asking staff to wash the container and their hands in hot soapy water. It should be dried before using with your equipment.

In the government’s updated guidance, issued last week for foodservice operators set to reopen later this week, the only mention of packaging relates to ketchup: businesses are advised to provide “only disposable condiments” or to clean “non-disposable condiment containers after each use”.

However, the guidance does suggest outlets do all they can to reduce the number of surfaces touched by both staff and customers. Those testing and promoting reusable cup systems have claimed that, done well, staff don’t actually have to touch the cup at all. With single-use both barista and customer touches the cup.

Still, Starbucks and Pret are not convinced. Asked by Footprint what their plans are Starbucks said it is “currently trialling operational procedures that will allow us to reintroduce reusables as our stores evolve from takeaway and to-go models, and in line with local government and health official guidance”.

Meanwhile, Pret said it remains “committed to reintroducing the use of reusable cups. We are hoping to bring them back before the end of the summer, dependent on changes to government social distancing guidance.”

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