In March 2020 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) added reusable bottles and cups to its ‘inflation basket’ of goods for the first time. The decision reflected “a growing number of people switching away from single-use products”. More food brands were launching refill pilots and most had made public-facing commitments to tackle single-use plastic. Some were publishing their plastic packaging footprints for the first time and most were investing in ways to ensure all their disposable packaging was recyclable or compostable.
Politicians, meanwhile, were busy penning policies to make producers pay more for unrecyclable packaging. A plastics tax was prepared, as well as market restrictions on the most commonly littered items, like plastic straws. Campaigners continued to push for change, and so too consumers.
Then the covid-19 pandemic struck. Foodservice businesses raced to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) – most of it single-use – and shift their models to 100% takeaway as lockdowns came into force. Supermarkets talked of customers switching from loose fruit and vegetables to pre-packed produce, which they perceived as safer.
Sodexo was among the caterers that re-introduced plastic-wrapped cutlery. Led by Starbucks, out of what the coffee chain described as an “abundance of caution”, the majority of high street chains also stopped accepting reusable cups on hygiene grounds.
In an exclusive Vypr survey for this report of 500 people who have visited a food-to-go outlet in the past three months, 30% of respondents said they’d stopped using reusable cups. Similar anxieties crept into businesses served by contract caterers. “Almost overnight we saw customers who had switched to reusable solutions move back to disposables,” explains Stephen Brennan, supply chain and procurement director for Aramark Northern Europe. The fears, as detailed later in this report, persist.
So how has the covid-19 pandemic impacted foodservice packaging? Are companies still committed to reducing disposables, improving recyclability and using recycled rather than virgin polymers? Do consumers still care about plastic pollution? Have safety fears really derailed progress on reusable models? And is there still the political will to press for the ambitious reforms set out in the government’s resources and waste strategy for England?
Through discussions with around 20 industry experts, think tanks, consultants, academics and campaigners, as well as an exclusive consumer survey, this report, produced in association with Klöckner Pentaplast (kp), provides some of the answers.
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