Plastics Package Let’s talk about reduction

Straws and stirrers are the low hanging fruit ministers want to forbid, but industry must go further. David Burrows reports from the FPA environment seminar.

I arrived at last week’s Foodservice Packaging Association environment seminar hoping to be inspired, but I left dejected.

First off, my reusable cup went missing. Perhaps that was my fault – this was, after all, a room full of companies that prop up the single-use society, so turning up with a KeepCup is a bit like serving up an Impossible Burger at a meat industry get-together. In fact, after the first couple of hours I wondered whether speakers had been banned from uttering the word “reduction” in relation to packaging.

Lord Deben, somewhat inevitably, led the charge. “Almost every product needs packaging,” he said, and without it “we could find it impossible to feed our planet”. Scary stuff. Or more accurately, fairytale stuff. This is a man who was twice awarded the title "Parliamentarian who did most for the environment internationally" by the BBC and was reportedly described as “the best environment secretary we ever had” by Friends of the Earth, but who now seems out of touch.

Packaging can protect food and reduce waste, but it’s not totally indispensable. Marks & Spencer has just started a trial to go packaging-free for its fresh produce, while Morrisons is encouraging customers to bring containers to its meat counters. In foodservice, cafés such as Prufrock Coffee are leasing reusable cups to customers, while Boston Tea Party banned single-use cups – a move that has seen sales of takeaway hot drinks fall 24%, but more people are drinking in and 80,000 disposable cups have been saved.

It’s early days, but bans on drinks stirrers and straws are just the start – they are the low hanging fruit ministers want to forbid as they kick off what should be a huge reduction in plastic volumes as we move up the waste hierarchy to reuse and reduce rather than focusing on recycling. Indeed, though the “plastics issue” has been tied to littering, there is a bigger story here that few in foodservice appear keen to hear. Still it needs saying.

Plastics account for 6% of global oil consumption currently, which puts it on a par with aviation. And if plastics use continues to grow at the pace forecast, then this figure will rise to 20% by 2050, which critically is 15% of the total annual carbon budget (the one that has to be respected in order to keep global warming below 2°C). Not all plastic is packaging, but 40% of plastic produced is packaging, used just once then discarded. Whichever way you look at it, this isn’t sustainable, which is why the debate has to revolve around resource use and reduction rather than recycling.

BP said last year that bans on single-use plastic items could mean two million barrels per day lower oil demand growth by 2040. Such policies are good news for the planet, but not for many packaging companies and their shareholders (the global foodservice packaging market will be worth $89.98 billion (£68.17 billion) by 2024, according to a forecast just published by Zion Market Research). It was hardly surprising therefore to find a line-up of speakers saying what FPA members wanted to hear. “Hearts and minds rather than facts and figures” are leading policy, suggested Prof David Bucknall, a man who recently grabbed headlines after he claimed that bans on plastic could be worse for the environment. His argument – that alternatives such as glass and metals could have larger impacts – has merit. However, he too seemed reluctant to consider the need to reduce (all) packaging – a slide detailing the future of plastics in a circular economy, for example, listed “redesign, reuse and recycle”. The targets in the UK Plastics Pact would also be “impossible” to hit, with “massive change” required to meet any of them. “Have we gone too fast, too quickly?” he wondered.

Bucknall’s desire to slow everything down will have been music to the ears of those packed into Stationers’ Hall. Dick Searle from the Packaging Federation had earlier pleaded with Thérèse Coffey to delay the flurry of consultations on packaging regulations expected in the early part of this year. The resource minister, who often impresses with her unfussy approach – not to mention her grasp of the subject matter – was having none of it. “We have been criticised enough on the time it will take to make [some of these policy] changes already,” she said. “We need to get on with [this].”

Heads will need to be removed from landfill so toes can be dipped in materials recycling facilities, as it were. Carefully. There followed a call to arms. Lord Deben, picking up from his battle cry of a speech at last year’s seminar (and interjecting at every opportunity here), urged the entire industry to sing from the same hymn sheet. In his days as a minister he recalled how he would “take great pleasure” if industry came to him with a united position because this meant the solution would be more likely to work.

The FPA made no secret of its closer working relationship with the Treasury, a reference perhaps to its success in convincing the chancellor that a latte levy on disposable cups would be a terrible idea. Now the focus is on that wretched deposit return scheme, a concept that campaigners have become “obsessed” with. Asda, A.G. Barr and Highland Spring have reportedly been lobbying senior figures in the Scottish Government hard to delay or at least weaken the planned DRS. This is very much a war on plastics.

And the afternoon began with further defending of the packaging sector. “I have seen this industry change in the past 10 years … from the sourcing of materials to what happens to them [at their end of life],” said Mark Pawsey, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the packaging manufacturing industry. The industry is far more responsible now, he said. Is it? The Royal Statistical Society’s statistic of the year in 2018 was 90.5%: that is, the proportion of plastic waste that has never been recycled. Estimated at 6,300 million metric tonnes, it’s thought that around 12% of all plastic waste has been incinerated, with roughly 79% accumulating in either landfill or the natural environment, claimed the authors of this paper titled: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.”   

Of course, the research is replete with assumptions and simplifications, but that’s because data on plastic use, and packaging more generally, is hard to come by. Supermarkets, manufacturers and foodservice companies have all remained tight-lipped about the amount and type of material they place on the market. Andy Rees, the Welsh Government’s head of waste strategy, admitted that he had “no idea” how much packaging is put on the market in Wales. He and his team are trying to build up a more accurate picture, but it’s proving tricky to get the information from packaging manufacturers.

Food companies may soon have to start reporting on food waste, having failed to do so voluntarily. If they are equally reticent to open up about packaging, then ministers should waste no time in reaching for the stick. And, to clarify, I mean all packaging, including compostables. Indeed, those with a vested interest in such alternatives are all too keen to trot out the 9% recycling rate stat for plastic, yet they have no idea what percentage of their packaging is actually composted.

Confusion about compostables was at the heart of this event in 2018, and it was clear from some of the questions raised that many remain baffled about what to do as the heat from the spotlight intensifies. That’s why I would have liked to have seen a panel with foodservice operators – the likes of McDonald’s, Just-Eat, Compass – to tell us what they are thinking. These are businesses that have mostly tried to maintain a low profile (very few have signed up to the plastics pact) with the FPA taking the fire. The association has done an admirable job for its membership, but how much longer can it resist serious change? “I don’t think there is anyone in this room who would say we don’t want recycling,” said the FPA executive director, Martin Kersh. He could easily have proved his point with a show of hands, and it might have shown me who had my reusable cup.

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