Plastics Package: company commitments keep coming

Footprint’s new monthly briefing The Plastics Package finds foodservice has been left out of a new packaging pact. By David Burrows.

It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the foodservice packaging news, so we’ve made it a little easier for you. Once a month, Footprint will bring you (some of) the latest corporate commitments, political promises and interesting innovations in one short, snappy summary. It’s a bit like the Guardian’s weekly Brexit briefing, apart from the fact it’s not weekly, not about Brexit and not asking for money in the opening two paragraphs (though sponsors shouldn’t be shy). You get the idea.

First, a quick recap on the past few months. Plastic in the sea – lots and lots and lots. Bad for fish, birds, pretty much everything (and us?). “Blue Planet II” and David Attenborough. Wake-up call. Michael Gove says he has nightmares and dreams up a 25-year environment plan (for which the Daily Mail takes credit). The food industry says a collective: “Oh shit” and pretty much every business falls over itself to make some kind of plastic-related commitment.

It’s all got a bit messy (and we haven’t even mentioned deposit return schemes, latte levies or Europe’s plan to ban some single-use plastics). Rarely has an environmental issue gathered so much momentum so quickly. So let’s keep up, which brings us to …

April, and WRAP’s new Plastics Pact – a “trailblazing, collaborative initiative … that will create a circular economy for plastics”. There are 42 food business members signed up to the four targets. Many of the largest food manufacturers and supermarkets are in, but Pret A Manger and Westmill appear to be the only foodservice companies involved (Brakes has signed up since the launch). There’s no McDonald’s, Burger King, Costa or Starbucks, nor any of the top 10 contract caterers in the country. Premier Inn, Accor, Greene King, JD Wetherspoon et al are also nowhere to be seen.

Why not? Hospitality and foodservice gets through almost 2m tonnes of packaging and “other waste” (including disposable cups). Whether they’ve been left out, want to be left alone to do their own thing (Iceland, the plastic-free pioneer, has done just that) or didn’t want to be left out of pocket (we’ve heard signatories had to cough up around £20,000) remains unclear. Still, commitments from the sector continue to clog up our inbox like a plastic soup (thankfully so, otherwise this would be a very light roundup).

So what else is new?

Hilton has pledged to ban plastic straws from 650 hotels worldwide. Elior and Sodexo are both banning straws and stirrers. Thumbs up. Sodexo will also “phase out single-use plastic bags and polystyrene foam items such as cups, lids and food containers by 2020”. Elior (in a bid to grab headlines rather than attract any attention to the detail) has published a new “plastics policy”. What is that, we inquired, our interest suitably piqued. Basically, it’s a … ban on plastic straws and stirrers. The one-page policy document is incredibly vague – not necessarily a bad idea given the tangle some pubs have already got themselves into with compostable straws – but then it’s not really a “policy”, is it? An example: Elior now “discourages” single-use packaging and where there’s no alternative it will “promote” disposables made from plant-based compostable materials.

Which brings us to Ireland, where the coffee chain Frank and Honest is switching completely to Vegware compostable cups from September. At 20m-plus cups, it is the “largest ever” compostable cups contract for CupPrint (which, in other news, was bought by Huhtamaki at the end of May). But where will all these cups end up? After almost three weeks we found out. Down2Earth Materials, which works with Vegware in Ireland, told us that “4-6m cups” from the 20m will be organically recycled into compostable along with food waste (based on two or three people in 10 doing the responsible thing). Not bad. Hats off to Ireland and its waste infrastructure. But that still leaves 14m cups somewhere other than a composting site.

What else? Brakes has become the first major foodservice wholesaler to jump on the plastic commitment cart with a 2 Zero 20 commitment. Catchy name, but we don’t quite get it. Still, it’s interesting in that hard black plastics (the ones the food industry love but which prove pretty much impossible to recycle) will be gone from the business by 2020. Excellent stuff. There will also be a new “clear labelling system” to help improve recycling rates. Not sure that’s such a good idea – unless it’s one that’s adopted by the entire industry. We await news with interest.

And speaking of labels, there’s a(nother) new one in town (and Iceland has jumped straight in). The Plastic Free Trust Mark will be awarded to food and drink products that are packaged without any plastic. "Our trust mark cuts through the confusion of symbols and labels and tells you just one thing – this packaging is plastic-free and therefore guilt-free," said the Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland. Hmmm.

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