Plastics Package: We mightn’t be ‘hot’ but our content is   

Compostable sector combusts over Defra’s caustic policies and recycling rates fall; plus Germany forces reuse and Scotland prepares for single-use plastics ban. By David Burrows.

Resource magazine has announced its eagerly anticipated hot 100 – an annual poll of the “recycling industry’s great and good”. There are academics, charities, company executives and consultants. There is even a cat (at number 84). And a politician in the top 10. And yet no place this year (or any other year for that matter) for The Package. We are, it seems, the Son Heung-Min in a world of Harry Kanes.

There are certainly some sustainability superstars on the list, which is headed by Trewin Restorick. The founder and CEO of Hubbub has for years been leading the charge on novel ways to change the behaviour of both consumers and businesses – for example coaxing Starbucks into applying a 5p charge to disposable cups.

This month Hubbub announced a new campaign with the coffee chain to increase uptake of reusable packaging. Applications for pilots that will promote behaviour change, involve research or trial “something completely new” can apply for funding from a total pot of £1m. 

The charity’s latest polling shows common barriers to reuse include cost (31%) and inconvenience (28%). However, misconceptions that it might be unhygienic (38%) were the principal problem. It’s an ironic twist that Starbucks is footing the bill to reassure the public on reuse: the chain planted the seed that reusable cups were unhygienic when it stopped accepting them at the outset of the pandemic in 2020, not through science but an “abundance of caution”.

Whopper unwrapped

Reuse is alive and kicking though, and Burger King is the latest big food brand to join the party. The chain has launched reusable and returnable packaging for burgers and sides. Loop is involved in the summer trial at five outlets in Ipswich and Newmarket. Diners will pay a £1 deposit for the packaging, redeemable when it’s returned. McDonald’s, readers will recall, is also working with Loop on a deposit and return scheme for reusable cups at six outlets.

This is good news but incredibly small scale (McDonald’s has 1,300 outlets in the UK, according to its website, while BK has just over 500 with plans to add another 200).

Both brands are running similar trials in other countries, too. In Germany the pilots are in anticipation of new laws that will make restaurants offer reusable containers for takeaway products. Set to come into force next year and apply to outlets over 80sqm in size and with no fewer than five staff, the laws also require that the reusable packaging must not be more expensive than the single-use alternative. The Greens in Germany want reuse to be the cheaper option.

The German Hotel and Restaurant Association, meanwhile, has said the new regulations could present a “financial burden” to businesses; there was even a suggestion in some reports that complying with both hygiene laws and the new packaging regulations could prove tricky. Industry groups lobbying against reuse will find the hygiene card increasingly hard to play (not least because there are rising concerns over the chemicals leaking from single-use packaging, paper, plastic and compostables). Expect the cost card to become their trump.

Year-on-year inflation in the foodservice sector hit 13.6% in March, according to the price index run by CGA and Prestige Purchasing. The cost of living crisis is also crushing many households. Time, surely, for a review of the UK’s packaging reforms and their potential to add further hardship, so said some industry representatives earlier this month. Last week the government announced junk food regulations would be delayed by at least a year in response to the cost of living crisis, so it feels inevitable packaging lobbyists will be shouting for similar leniency.

In Scotland, it’s too late for some regulations to be shelved. In June, a number of single-use plastic items will be banned, including plates, cutlery and expanded polystyrene cups and containers. Biodegradable and compostable plastics are in scope of the new legislation, which also covers straws (there are certain exemptions for these). The changes mean Scotland is (almost) falling into line with the EU single-use plastics directive, but is in danger of being tripped up by the UK Internal Market Act 2020.

Compostable conflict

Having been “outraged” at the time of the last Package (because of the plastics tax), tempers at the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) remain frayed. The association appears convinced that Defra has it in for its members – manufacturers of biodegradable and compostable products – and this is evidenced by strategies (that seem to support the bio-based sector and its wares) being out of kilter with policies (that demonise them).

In a letter this month from BBIA managing director David Newman (number 11 in the hot 100) to waste minister Jo Churchill (number 45), seen by The Package, the BBIA accused Defra of a “determinedly polemic view regarding compostables and globally accepted standards for biodegradability”. Composters have also written to the department challenging the decision (in the recent update on extended producer responsibility, for which Ecosurety has produced a tidy little summary) to label the packaging ‘do not recycle’ until such time that “the infrastructure and evidence base can be improved”. An evidence document also railed against policymakers’ perceived view that compostable packaging presents a microplastic problem.

Churchill has been invited to visit the UK’s largest composting facility (how can she resist?). She isn’t the only politician with diary commitments this week. Scottish environment minister Lorna Slater should this week convene the first meeting of the government’s single-use disposable beverage cup advisory group. She will also address the Foodservice Packaging Association’s annual environment seminar. The group (for which The Package was also overlooked) will help shape plans for a mandatory charge on coffee cups. The seminar (to which The Package has been invited) will surely see some plotting for ways to avoid such a levy.

Writing for Propel recently, Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of restaurant Stem & Glory, suggested a novel approach to driving reuse: flip VAT rules on their head. Hence, eating off a plate becomes exempt from the 20% tax while taking away in single-use packaging has the 20% added. She also dismissed compostable containers “widely made from virgin materials, which increase the carbon footprint of the product and do nothing to solve the issue of mass disposability”, and so should probably expect a letter from Newman at the BBIA.

Restoricking recycling rates

And finally, UK recycling rates fell from 46% in 2019 to 44.4% in 2020. According to statistics released by Defra, only in Wales was more household waste recycled in 2020 than in 2019. Provisional rates for packaging recycling also showed rates held at 63% (of 12.7 million tonnes). More Trewin Restoricks are needed, it seems (especially now he has stepped down from his role at Hubbub). 

1 Response

  1. Comment on Louise Palmer-Masterton re compostable containers being widely made of virgin materials. This statement is widely based on hogwash! Majority of fibre containers are made of bagasse which is the waste from sugar cane grown for the sugar that is left after the sugar has been extracted. Using these compostable agricultural sources reduces the carbon footprint dramatically when replacing oil based plastics. You couldn’t make this up!

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