PLASTICS PACKAGE: The final straw? (and stirrer)

This month’s package is so full of stuff that even a rotting biodegradable bag might tear under the strain.

Plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds will be banned in England from April next year. This follows “overwhelming public support” for the move, according to DEFRA.

England uses an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316m plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds every year.

Catering establishments such as restaurants, pubs and bars will not be able to display plastic straws or automatically hand them out, but they will be able to provide them on request. “There are instances where using plastic straws is necessary for medical reasons and the government will therefore ensure that those that need to use plastic straws for medical reasons can still access them,” the government said.

Plastic straws used on beverage cartons received a stay of execution until June 2021, which was welcomed by the Foodservice Packaging Association. This is in line with the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Directive, which means the other bans are ahead of Brussels’ new policies (duly noted several times by the government in its announcement).  

Europe wants to ban even more things, though. The Council of the EU is now happy with plans under the Single-Use Plastics Directive (which the UK should have to transpose into law) to get rid of all of these: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons, cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and all products made of oxo-degradable plastic (which we will come back to). By 2021. 

The European Commission estimates the directive will save 3.4m tonnes of CO2e, prevent environmental damage costing €22 billion by 2030, and save consumers  €6.5 billion. There are also measures to reduce the consumption of food containers and beverage cups made of plastic. Speaking of which…

“We have not dropped our demands [for a latte levy],” Mary Creagh, chair of the House of Commons environmental audit committee, told the Package. “The only way to change behaviour is to get people to pay; taxes are more effective than discounts.” Indeed, figures published at the end of last year showed that cup consumption was 3 billion in 2018, compared with 2.5 billion in 2016. Such growth is “unsustainable” said Creagh. Brits do love their coffee, though – the increase is because even more cafés have found even more corners to open on.

Of course, you could just remove the disposable cups. But who is going to do so after sales at independent coffee chain Boston Tea Party plunged £250,000 since they did just that. Owner Sam Roberts told BBC News that it had factored in the loss in its plans. "At the moment bigger businesses are deploying a smoke and mirrors strategy and not resolving problems while seeming like they are doing something about it,” he said. “We are 100% committed and there's no going back."

Progress against the UK Plastics Pact commitments has just been published by WRAP. The Pact, for the unacquainted, involves a series of packaging commitments that most food retailers have bought into and most foodservice firms have shunned. The report highlighted how members are trialling the removal of plastic packaging across a number of produce lines in order to understand where packaging can be removed without impacting food waste.

Greenpeace wasn’t impressed, however. “Changing pizza bases and removing plastic cutlery from company HQs just won’t cut it,” said ocean plastics campaigner Louise Edge. “In the coming year we need to see far more corporates step up their efforts to reduce plastic packaging and see a strong shift to a refill culture in shops.” To which those specialising in on-the-go shouted back ‘B*****’ (as in ‘Boston’ Tea Party, see above).

It’s hard to tell which side of the fence WRAP’s chief executive fell on. Marcus Gover was “delighted” to reveal a “huge array” of initiatives before offering a rather more pointed take: “Moving forward there will be tough decisions to make, new innovations to foster, and investment to be made – all at great pace and with an urgency that reflects the scale of the problem we are tackling.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global plastics commitment (another that’s been embraced and evaded by grocery and foodservice sectors  respectively) has made similar noises. Voluntary agreements without any Oblomovism? Whatever next?

An incapability to make important decisions or undertake any significant actions brings us back to the government (we like circularity here). An update on progress against the 25-year environment plan was published this month: 90% of the actions have been delivered or are being progressed – which sounds impressive. NGOs were not for hoodwinking, though: “Government has been able to mark its own homework and put out the results without critique or debate,” suggested the RSPB’s Jessica Chappell.

But there’s no time for that. The four consultations (plastics tax, deposit return scheme, recycling collections and producer responsibility) in its overhaul of the country’s waste policy all closed this month. If our inbox is anything to go by DEFRA secretary Michael Gove would be minded (like Oblomov) to stay in bed. At least until June 7th…

Oh, and finally those bags. A study by the University of Plymouth caused a bit of a stir, with many websites and newspapers reporting that the four bags it tested – biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, conventional HDPE and compostable – could all still hold a decent load of shopping after three years in the soil. However, it now turns out the compostable one did show signs of disintegration and couldn’t hold any weight. The university blamed a “typo”, according to MRW.

Further reading:

Plastic bans (England)

Plastic bans (EU)

Plastic Pact report.

25-year environment plan report.

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