PLASTICS PACKAGE: Rapid rulemaking strikes fear into foodservice

The EU’s single-use plastic law is arriving at high speed but is the foodservice sector prepared? David Burrows reports.

As Brexit talks reach breaking point and another series of packaging consultations consumes the food industry, it is little wonder that some of latest EU laws may have slipped under the radar. A case in point is the single-use plastics (SUP) directive. “What a lot of people have not realised is that the EU has been pushing through [this] directive at high speed which, regardless of Brexit, the UK has committed to following,” said Phil Conran, founder, 360 Environmental.

The directive is part of the EU’s Plastics Strategy, published back in January 2018, and means that in just over 12 months’ time the European Commission, Parliament and Council, has all but agreed to ban a range of items that foodservice companies rely on: single-use cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers and food and drink containers made of expanded polystyrene (EPS). The deadline for implementing the bans is 2021.

And there’s more. “Caps and lids made of plastic, from beverage containers are among the most found single-use plastic items littered on [European] Union beaches,” the draft directive states. “Therefore, beverage containers that are single-use plastic products should only be allowed to be placed on the market if they fulfil specific product design requirements significantly reducing the leakage into the environment of beverage container caps and lids.”

And more still. Member states must also “take the necessary measures to achieve an ambitious and sustained reduction in the consumption of” single-use drinks cups, fast-food containers and packaging used for other meals “ready for immediate consumption”. For an industry like foodservice – built around products that fit this description – the changes are hard to swallow. Concerns have been raised but by and large have been ignored.

One bugbear is the scope of the regulations. Despite the directive’s name, the items in the firing line do not have to be 100% plastic, with single-use defined as “a product that is made wholly or partly from plastic and that is not conceived, designed or placed on the market to accomplish, within its life span, multiple trips or rotations by being returned to a producer for refill or re-used for the same purpose for which it was conceived”. This has annoyed the likes of packaging firm Huhtamaki. “Paperboard foodservice cups and containers with recyclable polymer-coating and polymer-lining [making up 10% of the product’s material] should be excluded from the SUP directive,” the firm said in an October 2018 statement. Restrictions on single-use packaging can also lead to “risks in hygiene and food safety”, it noted, and instead of rules that reduce foodservice consumption the focus should instead be on “increasing collection and recycling through the entire value chain”.

The concept of reducing consumption is always going to be unpalatable for businesses. The pace with which this European policy is being pushed through only makes things worse; and there’s only a couple of weeks left to try and change the draft text. Still, the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) is hunting for MEPs that will support EPS being moved from the banned list to the “reduced consumption” one (with no binding targets it’s a far more flaky part of the directive). The FPA’s executive director Martin Kersh this month told Packaging News that EPS is being “singled out and treated unfairly”. His argument is that EPS was ranked 28 on the list of most frequently found items of marine litter, “well below many other items that are littered and are not on the banned list” (the directive started with the aim of preventing litter from the 10 single-use plastic products most frequently found on Europe’s beaches). “This type of material is most commonly used by independent take-aways and mobile caterers, whose customers are least able to afford a price hike,” Kersh added.

EPS is certainly dirt-cheap. More costly alternatives aren’t always better for the environment, either (as the current – and escalating – debate around compostables demonstrates). Still, there’s little doubt EPS is a consistent component of marine litter and clearly in the crosshairs of policymakers – and not just in Europe, and not just because it regularly ends up as litter. The UK government’s 25-year environment plan commits to “exploring whether we can ban other problematic materials where suitable alternatives exist”, and polystyrene is a prime candidate. Marcus Gover, CEO at WRAP – and a man environment secretary Michael Gove has relied on heavily for advice this past few months – said last year that there isn’t a good market for recycled polystyrene and so “we have to be questioning whether we should be using [it]”.

Retailers and wholesalers have also raised concerns that the benefits of the new SUP directive don’t match the bill. Extended producer responsibility schemes will need to cover the costs of collection and cleaning up litter for certain products, for example. “It is astonishing to see so many measures are being proposed in this directive and the [European Parliament] amendments, but how few actually tackle littering effectively,” said EuroCommerce director-general Christian Verschueren in October. “It is as if the core objectives of this directive got lost somewhere in the politically-driven debate.”

The European Commission believes its directive will avoid 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, prevent €22 billion in environmental damage by 2030 and save consumers €6.5 billion. “When we have a situation where one year you can bring your fish home in a plastic bag, and the next year you are bringing that bag home in a fish, we have to work hard and work fast,” said environment commissioner Karmenu Vella last year. There is little doubt that Brussels – due in part, no doubt, to heightened pressure from citizens – is working at speed: the directive has flown through the system in a matter of months, and in January the EU Council endorsed it. That’s the final legislative hurdle, with formal adoption now seen as a “formality”, according to a report by Ends Europe. However, things could still be tweaked before a plenary at the end of this month.

By then, the UK will have crashed out of the EU, secured a last-minute deal, or have extended the negotiating agony for another few weeks, or even months. Some of the steps in the SUP directive are already being taken in the UK, through the recently published Resources and Waste Strategy. But ministers here are treading softly, using the cushion of consultations to delay some of the more controversial changes (like deposit return schemes). Last week, Gove was brandished “minister of consultations” by the Labour Party, having launched 76 during his tenure (about four per month), whilst delivering only “one” piece of primary legislation (the Ivory Act). “Would Labour rather we didn’t consult and therefore see our ivory ban, deposit return scheme and single-use plastic bans overturned in the courts?” a Conservative Party spokesperson barked back.

According to Defra, ministers are “supportive” of the ambitions of the SUP directive, but it’s anyone’s guess how much will be transposed into UK law in the event of an increasingly likely (at the time of writing) no-deal Brexit. If, on the other hand, an agreement is reached, the UK will be subject to “the full monty”, according to Conran. And that would mean considerable upheaval and change.

“The new laws are a significant first blow to the plastic pollution monster,” said Zero Waste Europe’s (ZWE) Delphine Lévi Alvarès, who coordinates the Break Free From Plastic movement in Europe. ZWE still has some reservations, but when environmental campaign groups are broadly content with a new law, it usually means the proposals are the stuff of nightmares for many businesses. And let’s not forget this is just the first step towards what is being described as “more conscious use of plastic”. For those with a vested interest in single-use packaging, the pain has only just begun.

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