With single-use packaging in politicians’ sights, the retailer’s circular economy lead talks to Footprint about plans to cut waste to zero. By David Burrows.
It’s 14 months since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched his offensive against the coffee shop chains and single-use coffee cups. Starbucks, Costa and Nero bore the brunt of the celebrity chef’s ire, but with a record of recycling less than 0.25% of the 2.5 billion cups used every year it was high time for reflection across the food-to-go sector.
“The industry works on these kinds of issues all the time but a documentary like that gives us a kick up the backside,” says Kevin Vyse, a senior packaging technologist and circular economy lead at Marks & Spencer.
Vyse is speaking to Footprint before the launch of a “big initiative” on disposable cups. He can’t say what the project is exactly, but it comes at a time when single-use packaging – cups, bottles and sandwich wrappers – is firmly in the sights of campaigners and politicians.
In September, the Commons environmental audit committee (EAC) relaunched its inquiry into disposable coffee cups and plastic bottles, which had been cut short by the general election in June. The fact that less than one in 400 cups are recycled and recycling of plastic bottles has stagnated at about 57% has caught the committee’s eye. Industry witnesses shouldn’t expect an easy ride if they’re summoned to Westminster.
The efforts of the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (PCRRG), for example, will be closely scrutinised. Last month, the collaboration of businesses from across the supply chain (retailers, foodservice, packaging companies, reprocessors, NGOs and local authorities) published a progress report. This described how much easier it is for consumers to recycle their cups than this time last year – collection points have rocketed from “very few” to “more than 4,000”. More high-street brands have also joined Costa and Starbucks in offering discounts to those bringing reusable cups, and soon there will be research to find out whether the cups can be separated at materials recycling facilities.
Will it be enough to appease the EAC, though? The group’s report offers no indication of the percentage of cups recycled and the target to “significantly increase paper cup recovery and recycling rates by 2020” is vague. MPs on these committees often have the devil in their eyes when digging for the detail.
Marks & Spencer is just one of the big food-to-go brands involved in the PCRRG. Vyse argues progress has been swift given the scale of the challenge. “What [Hugh’s campaign] did is put the stakeholders in the same room,” he explains. “We’re forced together and find huge amounts of synergy. [But] people underestimate how long things need to take to build and get the supply chain in place.” Still, there’s recognition that the pressure is on. “We have to horizon scan,” he continues. “If consumers don’t think we’re ‘on it’ then they’ll tell us.”
MPs on the EAC will be similarly impatient, while Michael Gove (putting aside his form to date as a political Pollyanna) has already suggested he’s not happy with the situation regarding plastic bottles. “There is more we can do to protect our oceans, so we will explore new methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas,” he said in his first major speech as environment secretary in July.
In Scotland, the government’s patience has already run out. In her programme for government 2017-18, published in September, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced a nationwide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles. Holyrood will also be putting together “an advisory group to consider fiscal and other measures to reduce waste and boost the circular economy – for example, a possible levy on single-use coffee cups”.
About time too, say environment campaigners, who point to the success of the charge on plastic bags. The PCRRG argues that comparing bags to cups is akin to likening apples and pears – a coffee bought on the go is “spontaneous”, for a start. It’s also trying to warn the government off the idea as expensive and ineffective. The debate continues.
Is Vyse a fan of regulatory intervention? “If there isn’t regulation then you need a big pot of cash,” he says. “We [Marks & Spencer] are only 5% of the UK food market, but we have a massive voice.”
Vyse says Marks & Spencer is a “pusher” when it comes to sustainability, and there’s certainly evidence of ambition in the company’s new Plan A 2025 project. The retailer wants to become a zero-waste business, and by 2022 all consumer-facing product packaging will be not only “recyclable” but “widely recycled”. To the layman the change appears small – insignificant even – but it’s a bold move. Is it a response to the backlash from the coffee cup campaign, which exposed the difference between “recyclable” (in theory) and “recycled” (in practice)? “There’s a massive amount of confusion among consumers,” says Vyse. More pointedly, he says: “It would be nice if the government said it wants a universal recycling policy.”
The government’s antipathy towards waste policy in recent years is no secret, so harmonisation of recycling collections is a big ask (DEFRA is focused on Brexit and councils are cash-strapped). But this won’t stop Marks & Spencer’s efforts to push on. Vyse and his team are assessing whether it’s possible to make all plastic packaging from one polymer group. “We’re not intending to have a miracle cure within five years,” says Vyse, “but we want a policy in place [soon].”
Streamlining of plastic packaging into one polymer would be a major breakthrough, but 2022 is some way off. By then, the UK’s food-to-go sector will be worth £23.5 billion, up 35% from £17.4 billion now, according to IGD figures published in August. More sales mean more cups, more bottles and more single-use packaging, so policymakers may be forced to consider more radical interventions.
A big switch to biodegradables is not the answer, says Vyse, given that it “encourages people to drop” and will create further confusion; the few recycling plants available to take the materials would be “overwhelmed”. “It’s much better to capture and recycle,” he adds.
Capture remains the big headache, of course. Impressive recycling rates from closed events such as the London Olympics, Glastonbury or shopping centres are one thing; repeating that on the high street is quite another. Bins have been removed and people are in a hurry, says Vyse – the mentality tends to be: “I need my food, my appetite has been sated and I’m going back to work.” He says: “We’re looking at all sorts of initiatives with [campaign group] Hubbub.”
And if they stumble on a breakthrough? “I don’t think we’d want to keep it to ourselves,” he says. “The environment is not a competitive space. Unless we collaborate we won’t have big things happening fast.”