PLASTICS PACKAGE: Here’s to proper coffee in proper cups

French law bans disposables for dining-in. New warning labels for single-use cups. The cup LCA that sucked people in. And the sexy sterility of plastic packaging.

As the UK Government stresses over how to safely reopen the hospitality sector next month, the newspapers are brimming with images of Europeans enjoying café dehors in the sunshine. If the interviews are anything to go by, few proprietors are making any money, but caffeine addicts are buzzing at the prospect after weeks of lockdown and a reliance on takeaways. “I want it [my coffee] in a proper cup,” a garbage man told the FT’s Paris correspondent.

Well, he is in luck, because there is a new law in France that will, from 2023, ban foodservice outlets from using disposable cups if the drinks are consumed on-site. In fact, any tableware has to be reusable if the person is sitting in.

Cheers to reusables

The new measures are part of the country’s wide-ranging “anti-waste law” adopted in January. According to Brune Poirson, secretary of state to the minister of ecological and inclusive transition, the new rules propose “a more sober daily life in which manufacturers are more accountable”.

Packagers certainly won’t be popping any champagne corks. Whilst some campaigners say the final law has been watered down somewhat, there are still a number of measures that will leave fast food brands and their packaging suppliers feeling flat.

There is a ban on polystyrene boxes (from January 2021), a ban on wrapping fruit and veg in plastic (a process the summary in English calls “an aberration”) and a requirement for supermarkets to put bins in-store so shoppers can recycle any excess packaging they don’t need (a nod to so-called “pre-cycling” that Sainsbury’s has been trialling here). Manufacturers will also have to provide open data on products that contain any endocrine disruptors.

There is also an intriguing target to “achieve zero disposable plastic by 2020”. It sounds a bit like the one in the UK Government’s 25-year environment plan: “zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042”. Here at The Package we are not certain what either of those really mean; but we are sure the respective politicians will tell us when they decide.

Pre-pack it, please

In the current crisis, of course, everything is up for debate. Plastic is sexy again – in a sterile kind of way. “It seems likely that concerns about hygiene and food safety in the context of the pandemic might become a higher priority while the sustainability performance of different packaging substrates could become a lower priority—at least for the short term,” noted experts at McKinsey in their April report, How the packaging industry can navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Tesco chief Dave Lewis offered a more pithy appraisal: “Before the crisis, people were looking for more unpackaged, loose produce, [but] people are interestingly going back to pre-packed produce because they believe that’s a safer purchase,” he told the BBC.

The “open question”, as McKinsey’s experts put it, is whether Tesco et al will start to renege on their commitments to reduce packaging? The “mega” trend towards sustainability in packaging has slowed, the consultants noted, but their 10-year outlook is that the impact of this agenda on the sector will recover to be “very high”. This is a “short-term shift to manage turmoil.”

Bright loses spark

Talk of turmoil segues us perfectly to the plastic recycling market – or lack of one. The recycling industry in Europe closed production last month and this month there was a warning from UK firms. “Like other manufacturers of recycled plastic compounds, we are being expected to drop our prices to compete with the current low price of virgin polymers due to low oil prices,” Steve Spencer, managing director at Bright Green Plastics, told Ends Report.

All the talk at Davos earlier this year was around plastic and waste-free commitments. Nestlé announced a CHF2 billion (£1.68 billion) package to accelerate the shift from virgin to recycled plastic. “The economics of plastic recycling are complex, but in nutshell, it's cheaper today for plastic manufacturers to produce virgin plastics than it is to produce food-grade recycled plastics.” The gap has now widened, reported Bloomberg Green, which is placing company commitments to increase recycled content under pressure.

SMEs and those without strategies or targets in place will be happy to pick up cheap virgin materials, but the big brands should find it impossible to backtrack. Not one has yet tried to, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has encouraged global brands sign up to various targets under its New Plastic Economy Global Commitment.

“Many of these brands are reaching out to us to say we need to make sure we maintain the momentum on plastics,” EMF’s Sander Defruyt told Ethical Corporation. “They very much realise that Covid-19 doesn’t change anything about the fact that we have a massive plastic waste and pollution issue that still has to be solved.”

Cup suckers

Here at The Package we have been known to be a little more sceptical over business commitments and claims – unlike our counterparts at The Observer and The Scotsman it seems. Both publications lapped up a new study on the carbon footprint of cups (see here and here respectively). That the research was press released but not published in full mattered not, as they reported the benefits of the Frugal Cup (which is made from 96% recycled paperboard and 4% polyethylene liner) over a range of disposable cousins in an independent life cycle analysis presumably paid for in full by … Frugal Cup. The papers completely ignored the fact there was no LCA of reusable cups.

We can’t go into more details, because we don’t have them: the full “21-page” report is being kept at a social distance from anyone threatening to read it. Neither, therefore, can we tell you whether the Frugal Cup actually “has the lowest environmental impacts under every life cycle scenario and by every environmental measure", as the company claims.

Stuck on label designs

We also can’t tell you what the new mandatory EU labels on single-use plastic cups are going to look like: a decision is due by July 3rd, with member states having to comply with the rules by July 3rd 2021. The labelling laws come under article 7 of the EU Single-use Plastics Directive, which states that certain products will need to have a “conspicuous, clearly legible and indelible marking on its packaging or on the product itself informing consumers of the following:

  1. appropriate waste management options for the product or waste disposal means to be avoided for that product, in line with the waste hierarchy; and
  2. the presence of plastics in the product and the resulting negative impact of littering or other inappropriate means of waste disposal of the product on the environment.”

Cups with a plastic lining or coating are one of the products listed. The Package understands these will be no smaller than the Mermaid print on Starbucks cups but could be as big as the health warnings on cigarette packets (65% of the surface area). Consultants are mulling over the options. Of the ones we have seen, one has the words “contains plastic” and “harms nature” on them with an image of littering. Another potential marking says “contains plastic” and “protect nature” with an image of the item being put in a bin.

And neither can we say whether the UK will apply these rules or not. Plus ca change, as the French might say.


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