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Friday digest: Bans on plastic, bold food policies and energy firms behaving badly

This week’s digest is overflowing with news on healthy diets, mandatory ecolabelling schemes, dairy stats and the concept of ‘peak meat’.

But first: the (official) decision to ban a range of single-use plastic items – including plates, bowls and cutlery – has been making headlines all week. Small businesses, like fish and chip shops, could well struggle with the additional costs of non-plastic single-use alternatives. Foodhub CEO Adrian Mula welcomed the “much-needed policy” but called for takeaways to receive government support in complying with it.

The UK government encouraged companies to look at reusables but whether they will be supported in doing so remains to be seen. Zero Waste Scotland has been running trials to help reduce reliance on single-use (whatever the material); the results are imminent. Scotland’s plastic bans came into force last year.

Industry representatives have also questioned the timing of the ban (October 2023) and the unintended environmental consequences of it (alternatives can carry more carbon than plastic). That the announcement was made via the Mail on Sunday and not made official until almost a week later also irked. Still, Defra was delighted with all the coverage last week with the department’s media blog noting that BBC Breakfast, Sky News and ITV News “all ran packages” on the ban as well as the government’s wider ambitions to tackle plastic pollution under extended producer responsibility (EPR) and deposit return schemes (DRS).

EPR and DRS are fast-becoming the Godots of packaging policies. The feeling of hopelessness was evident, we hear, in a recent forum run by Defra to help businesses prepare for all these changes to packaging regulations. EPR is as clear as mud, it seems, while there has been much delay and dithering over DRS. A pollby Savanta for British Glass this week showed 69% of UK adults want to recycle glass at home rather than take it to a collection point. Glass looks set to be excluded from both England’s and Northern Ireland’s DRS but included in those being rolled out by Scotland and Wales.

Defra ministers were asked about DRS during oral questions in parliament. Trials are being run on digital DRS and the results are “encouraging”. “We will be watching with a weather eye,” said environment minister Rebecca Pow. 

Her boss, Thérèse Coffey, showed she is also paying attention to her brief by relaying the price of a pint of milk. The question (which ministers past have faltered on) came during a real Punch and Judy patch in parliament, in which Coffey was then accused of “clocking up more air miles than Father Christmas”. Some might say this government’s current strategy on food production, security and consumption is away with the fairies too. 

Research by the Food Foundation this week showed Britain doesn’t produce enough fruit and vegetables for everyone to meet the five-a-day (400 grams) intake recommended by the government. People have turned away from traditional home-grown foods like peas and carrots; more than 80% of our fruit and almost half of our vegetables now come from imports, the foundation noted in a new series of briefing papers. This dependence on imports from regions increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and water scarcity puts our food security at risk by exposing us to cost and supply fluctuation, the group warned. Domestic supply must be boosted and all taxpayer-funded meals in schools, hospitals, prisons and government offices must include two portions of veg, with fruit as an additional portion in desserts. Free school meals also need to be expanded, while the policies in the obesity strategy must be fully implemented with the cost of unhealthy and healthy foods “rebalanced” so the cheapest are the healthiest.

None of this is easy but now is the time for bold thinking, it seems. Food inflation is at a 40-year high, there’s a cost of living crisis and 7.3 million people are in food poverty. At least food company CEOs can afford the food they make: their salaries have got fatter but very few of them pay their staff a decent wage, according to Tortoise Media research detailed in a blog for the Food Research Collaboration. Just two of the eight food and drink companies in the FTSE100 – Diageo and Unilever – paid employees a real living wage. “Increasing wages should be a priority for the food sector but it will require transformation at the system level,” wrote lead researcher Maddy Diment.

Staying in the boardroom, a survey of 2,600 CEOs in 128 countries by Accenture and the UN Global Compact, shows climate change fourth in the top 10 challenges facing businesses (behind price volatility and inflation, talent scarcity and threats to public health). With only eight years left to rescue the SDGs, 43% of CEOs globally said their sustainability efforts have been hampered due to the geopolitical environment. Nearly all large companies will reportedly miss their own net-zero targets unless they double the rate of carbon emissions reductions by 2030. On the plus side, business leaders are reconfiguring supply chains, reskilling their workforces, reassessing their relationship with natural resources, and reimagining planetary boundaries.

Consumers still care about sustainability – 61% of global shoppers said it’s more important to them than it was two years ago, according to research by Nielsen IQ. This is because it’s in the news all the time (54%), they feel more informed about sustainability (48%), their health and safety has been or could be impacted by climate change (47%) or they have been personally impacted by extreme weather events (30%). However, 41% say green products are too expensive; a wider range of sustainable goods (which also need to be clearly marked) would make 79% more likely to choose a retailer. More than three in four (77%) would shun brands found guilty of greenwashing.

In other news this week, UKHospitality has demanded that Ofgem names and shames the energy companies that are treating hospitality businesses as a “cash cow”. Stories of the reckless behaviour of energy suppliers have spiralled on the back of the government’s energy support package for businesses. Foodservice and hospitality companies are being offered rates well above wholesale prices and have had their standing charges hiked; eye-watering deposits, and, in some cases, refusing to work with hospitality are other examples of the “disgraceful” behaviour of energy suppliers, said UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls.

Historically high global energy prices were one of the reasons the government tasked its former energy minister, Chris Skidmore, to review its net-zero strategy. He has now published his 129 recommendations. In a nutshell, achieving net-zero remains a very good idea but the UK could do much more to reap the economic benefits of green growth. Businesses need to be backed, said Skidmore, who proposed a review of incentives for investing in decarbonisation, including via the tax system. 

Worth noting, too, is that he wants to see full details of the environment land management schemes published by the end of the year – nature and net-zero are “inextricably linked” – and for 50% of UK-based food and drink businesses to measure and report their scope 3 emissions against a government- and industry-agreed standard. He has also recommended that government should “pursue ecolabelling to help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions, by 2025”. A mandatory method of measuring the impact of food should be developed with industry via the food data transparency partnership, the review notes.

And finally: “Have we reached peak meat?” That is the question posed by an article in The Guardian which looks at pioneering policies in the Netherlands to reduce livestock numbers in a bid to cut pollution and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Now that’s bold.