Plastics Package: No time for toying around

This month’s package is committed to reduction (and is doing it for the kids)

Schools have all shut up shop for the summer holidays, leaving many parents facing a rollercoaster six weeks of juggling childcare, work and the cost of ice cream on popular family days out. We have thus condensed this month’s Package. Puffery – like an unnecessary piece of plastic – has been eliminated, leaving us with the following…

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (HFW) has been on our screens waging War on Plastic. Only plastic, mind. Not aluminium. Or paper. Or glass. Or compostables (even though they are plastic). So long as we don’t use plastic then all will be well in the world. Hmmm. “The demonisation of all plastics without considering the carbon impacts of alternatives does not lend itself to considered debate,” noted Hubbub founder Trewin Restorwick in his response to the programme. The debate needs to become “more sophisticated” he suggested, with a “proper conversation about reducing plastics” (and other single-use packaging, of course).

That would be the grown-up thing to do. HFW, however, seemed to spend most of his time sipping flat whites and looking forlorn in cafés as he tapped yet another email to a food industry behemoth that would get no further than the press office. So it was actually left to nine-year-old Ella and her seven-year-old sister Caitlin to say what needed to be said: “We want Burger King and McDonald’s to think of the environment and stop giving plastic toys with their kids meals.”

Although the girls were hoofed off the McDonald’s HQ premises, their petition now has more than 400,000 signatures. Millions of parents will be praying the girls succeed so they no longer have to (a) deal with disappointment when their offspring get THE WRONG TOY; (b) keep going back to buy more burgers until they get the right one; and (c) spend a sunny afternoon digging about under the cupboards to find Buzz Lightyear.

McDonald’s has already hinted it’ll scale back on the plastic toys, but will instead ramp up distribution of other useless stuff billed as “toys”. Breathe, parents, breathe: it’s meant to be a “happy meal”, remember?

Spotting an opportunity – if not the subsequent social media disaster – Marks and Spencer announced that grandparents will be able to plug the plastic crap gap in our homes: it will be giving away miniature plastic toy models of its most popular food products to those who spend more than £20 in store (which is pretty much everyone). The retailer’s head of sustainability was forced to do a video to show just how sustainable these toys are. They can be reused again and again, explains Carmel McQuaid, and when the kids get bored of them she suggests creating your own community circular economy of crap by giving them to a family member or neighbour. And if that fails, then bring them in store, says McQuaid, and they will be recycled into … you’ve guessed it … park benches.

At some point in the near future (perhaps even by next week) the supply of seats for public spaces will outstrip demand. Thank goodness, therefore, that Wrap has come up with new guidance on household rigid packaging – basically, bottles, pots, tubs and trays. The guidance is short but very useful. For example, there is a preference for clear PET (often used for bottles and trays) because the end market for this material is significantly higher, and by using “clear” there is the greatest potential for it to be recycled back, ideally into plastic packaging. Other polymers, including the much-maligned styrenes, PVC and multilayered packaging, should be avoided at all costs.

Wrap can’t dictate to its Plastics Pact members what materials they must use (that’s for politicians – Labour is mulling this over, while a ban on non-recyclable plastic was debated in Parliament in June). However, it can set out the “best-in-class” materials for different items (that is, those that are readily recyclable at scale) and encourage widespread adoption of them. “While some plastics are classed as recyclable, there is a need to move beyond this, ideally selecting polymers which have a greater recyclability potential than others,” said Wrap director Peter Maddox.

Pact members have also been told to eliminate eight “problematic” or “unnecessary” items by 2020. The hitlist includes single-use plastic cutlery, stirrers, straws, plates and bowls, as well as all polystyrene packaging. “For every item of packaging we need to consider whether plastic is the right material choice, or indeed if packaging is required at all,” Maddox said. Businesses not involved in the pact – and that includes a number of larger foodservice and hospitality firms (although not McDonald’s, which has just signed up) – should know that many of these are to be banned anyway by law under the EU’s Single-use Plastics Directive, which the UK will need to stick to.

It was single-use cups that thrust the difference between “recyclable” and “actually recycled” into the spotlight (thanks in no small part to HFW’s first attack on waste). New Food recently reported that by 2026 global production of single-use cups will reach 850 billion units, up from 500 billion in 2016. In the UK, the figure in 2018 was 3 billion (up from 2.5 billion in 2016). Considerable efforts have been made to recycle more of these, but experts on Scotland’s catchily named Epecom panel have been left wondering whether there is any point.

The Expert Panel on Environmental Charging and Other Measures (note: some have questioned the “expert” bit, given the lack of representatives from foodservice or NGOs) has been looking at single-use disposable cups, and this month produced its findings for government. Feedback from industry and retailers suggested a preference for focusing on recycling, but Dame Sue Bruce, the panel’s chair, was having none of it. “There needs to be a fundamental move away from single-use disposable beverage cups and not just to an improved model for recycling,” she said. A 20-25p charge is needed, plus bans on single-use cups in “closed environments”, although the definition of those is yet to be decided. Promising examples of what can be achieved are beginning to emerge, though.

For example, a single-use cup ban has been in place in Scottish Government buildings for a year now, while reusable cup trials run by NHS Scotland and Zero Waste Scotland in hospitals are also proving “highly effective”, according to Epecom. In June, Hubbub and Starbucks teamed up to lend passengers at Gatwick reusable cups, which are dropped off at designated points before boarding flights. Only 2,000 of the cups were put into circulation at an airport that gets through 7m single-use cups a year. However, that a reuse trial is being run at a location that boasts a disposable cup recycling rate of 76% (nationally the rate is 4%) suggests reduction may slowly but surely be gaining favour over recycling (as per the waste hierarchy).

There is every chance Scotland will go for a charge on cups. Down south it’s a very different story. As former chancellor, Philip Hammond, long maintained a charge “would not at this time be effective in encouraging widespread reuse”. However, his successor, Sajid Javid, might want to consider the behaviour change going on right under his eyes in Westminster. Last year, Parliament introduced a 25p surcharge on all hot drinks to encourage customers to instead use a china mug or a reusable “keep cup”, a measure that has resulted in a reduction in monthly sales of hot drinks in single-use disposable cups from 58,000 to 15,000 with no negative impact on overall sales. (Note the 15,000 still being used – including at times by environment secretary Michael Gove – are compostable, but none have yet found their way into a composting plant).

Is this the start of a refillable revolution? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Wrap asked 6,000 people what approach they’d favour to help reduce the negative impact of food packaging, and only 13% said eliminate as much of it as possible, offer products “loose” and ask people to bring their own containers. This compared to 17% who wanted it all to be biodegradable or compostables (see note above) and 44% who said make it all recyclable and then actually recycled by the local council. All music to the ears of the packaging lobby, no doubt.

 

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