Scotland ‘ditches disposables’

From the elimination of single-use sachets to deposit return schemes for coffee cups, Scotland’s hospitality businesses are taking part in a £1m reusable revolution. By David Burrows.

“Too much time, energy and money is being spent searching for alternatives to single-use packaging. But which brands are prepared to step away from single-use materials?” This was the conclusion – and the challenge – at the end of the Footprint/BaxterStorey “Future of Foodservice Packaging” report.

Indeed, we found that businesses – especially the bigger high-street brands – appeared reticent to adopt reusable packaging systems. Many see looming regulations to ban or tax plastic as an incentive to swap to another disposable option rather than revolutionise the way they do business. “Creating an entire new infrastructure inevitably brings cost into the product, as well as raising questions around hygiene when reusing these products,” said Just Eat UK’s Robin Clark, director of Global Restaurant Services and Sustainability.

He wasn’t the only one who defended disposables as brands protected themselves from the risk of “first mover disadvantage” (think Boston Tea Party’s dive in sales following its ban on single-use cups). It was a similar story at this year’s Foodservice Packaging Association environment seminar, with commercial scalability and consumer acceptance persistent concerns (some might say excuses).

To make reusables work – after years of easy-to-use and cheap-to-chuck disposables – there needs to be collaboration at scale, which is driven by businesses and enabled by government policy. But what is also needed is the cool, hard business cases that scream this is a brilliant (economically and environmentally sustainable) idea. Within 12 months we could have some of those, thanks to a new series of “Ditching Disposables” pilots being run across Scotland.

Armed with £1m from Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund, Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) will run 14 projects to tackle a range of single-use items, from cups and bottles to stirrers and sachets. “We know incentivising reuse works,” said ZWS chief executive Iain Gulland. Indeed, in a trial at University Hospital Crosshouse in Ayrshire, a 10p charge for disposable cups and free reusable cups resulted in the reuse rate rocketing from 1% to 43%, with 157 fewer disposable cups used per day (as Footprint first reported, similarly impressive results have been witnessed since the Houses of Parliament introduced a 25p charge for disposable cups).

But these are “closed” environments. What would happen on the high street? To answer that, most will point to Boston’s experience, which would be unfair: the chain has gone it alone by banning disposable cups so some customers have simply gone elsewhere for their morning “cup of joe”. Would it be a different story if that idea were scaled?

This is what will happen in Wick, Stirling, central Edinburgh, North Berwick and Thurso, where dozens of independent cafes and hospitality businesses will run deposit return coffee cup schemes alongside a charge on disposable cups. The concept is simple: customers pay a small deposit when they purchase a drink, which is refunded when they bring it back; the cups are then washed and used again. ZWS believes this is the first time such a scheme has been delivered anywhere in the world. Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Caffe Nero et al, take note.

Other pilots include a pop-up refill store in an area of Glasgow, where residents can buy packaging-free products. Stirling Castle, meanwhile, will switch from single-use bottles to water dispensers and reusables, and the Mey Highland Games and Taste North food and drink festival will look to get rid of cups, stirrers, sachets and bottles. The Fringe by the Sea festival in North Berwick and community hubs in Dunbar will also receive support to cut back on consumption of disposable packaging.

The scope of the programme is impressive, although a scheme looking at the potential of reusables for takeaway businesses would have been valuable – if only to show Just Eat what’s possible.

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