PLASTICS PACKAGE: Cup confusion reigns as more cafés reopen

Coffee shops have been left baffled by the advice regarding acceptance of reusable cups, while exclusive research shows consumers haven’t totally bought into the pandemic positivity around single-use packaging. By David Burrows.

“There is government advice not to accept any reusable cups for fear of virus transmission and this seems likely to last for some time, so we will need to revisit [this approach] once we are allowed to.”

That was an email from a coffee shop I was sent recently. Is this true? Is there advice not to accept reusable cups during the current pandemic? No, there isn’t. The only advice so far has been this, from the UK Government’s guidance for consumers on coronavirus and food: “Customers may previously have used reusable cups or containers when shopping or buying drinks at cafés and other retailers. It is up to the individual business to decide whether they allow the use of reusable cups or containers during this period. If reusable cups or containers are used, they should be washed thoroughly in hot, soapy water, or in a dishwasher, if suitable.”

In an email to Footprint, the Food Standards Agency confirmed that reusables could be accepted at the discretion of the operator: “If consumers do wish to use a reusable cup/container, it should be washed thoroughly in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher, if suitable. However, it is at the discretion of the business whether to allow the use of reusable cups/containers, which remains subject to the requirement to supply safe food and other food law. Where appropriate, a food business should include the use of customers’ reusable cups/containers as part of their Food Safety Management System (FSMS) using Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles.”

So, the onus is on businesses to decide (UKHospitality may well offer its own take when it soon publishes its full protocols to help hospitality businesses reopen safely). This is hardly surprising given that an underlying tactic of this government during the Covid-19 crisis is to carefully defer responsibility to others. So, what should businesses do?

Cafés in other parts of the world, notably Australia, are already demonstrating that foodservice businesses can open up with contactless models for reusable cups. In the UK, meanwhile, Better Food stores in Bristol have just started working with campaign group City to Sea to offer “best practice” on reusables.

However, most of the major coffee shop chains, led by Starbucks, have decided that accepting reusable cups is currently a bad idea. The Sunday Times reported recently that coffee chains are “ready to reopen for business, but some, including Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Pret a Manger, will not be accepting reusable cups because of hygiene concerns”.

Whether this is based on staff and consumer safety or it is because their hearts were never really in the whole reusable concept will be hotly debated. Some champions of reuse have told me they understand the decision (although I’ve been told one of the major chains will next month start accepting reusable cups again). “If single-use makes it feel easier to keep people safe you can understand that’s … an acceptable trade-off in the short term,” Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, told me this week.

Others point to industry lobbying as a factor. Iain Gulland, chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland, told me that his team has yet to see anything that would suggest single-use is safer than reusables in relation to the spread of coronavirus. “Where is the evidence?” he said. “There is a perception [that single-use is safer] and you could argue that’s what has been created.” He also believed that hospitality businesses, despite being battered by the current crisis, are not going to park the packaging issue. “The challenge for us is to be in there early [talking about the cost savings with reuse].”

What do consumers think? A poll of 500 people in the UK, conducted by data validation platform Vypr on behalf of Footprint earlier this month, showed that 57% would prefer a single-use cup, while 39% would stick with a reusable one. The split on which option is safer is almost identical: 59% going for single-use and 38% reusable. The sample size is small and what’s impossible to tell is whether this shows strong support for reusables (given that the vast majority of hot drinks served for takeaway are in single-use containers) or a swing back towards single-use.

Foodservice operators certainly sense it could be the latter. Promoting a new compostable packaging collection scheme with Vegware recently, Sodexo waste development manager Catherine Burrows said: “We know that food service is going to see an increased demand for disposable packaging as workplaces start to reopen.” Lexington Catering managing director Julia Edmonds talked of “this difficult time when we need to rely so much on disposable packaging to deliver safe takeaway food for our customers”. And Bartlett Mitchell purchasing director Steve Fox added that he is “anticipating an increase in the use of disposables” as a result of Covid-19.

Vegware’s new scheme, launched in partnership with waste management firm Paper Round this month, is an example of a packaging manufacturer closing the loop on the material it is placing on the market (Vegware has had issues with infrastructure in the past, so lessons are perhaps being learned). This is responsible business.

Less so, is the compostable packaging manufacturer’s move to fertilise the ‘single-use is safer’ seed: its new “back-to-business guide for socially distanced catering” reads more like a sales catalogue designed to do nothing more than spook operators into choosing (in this case compostable) disposables. Others are doing the same – and with increasing frequency. These are, of course, businesses fighting for their lives. Campaigners have started to hit back, but goading of the packaging industry on social media won’t help.

The bottom line, as things stand, is there is no evidence I’ve seen that disposable cups are the safer option hygiene-wise. If there were, the government’s advice above would (surely) be very different. This offers those keen to return to reusables some comfort if they can make contactless cup models work. Others will want to stick with single-use. Whatever the decision, we should respect it. The scaremongering has to stop.

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