The Friday digest: fruit and veg left rotting as labour and land dry up

From packaging and fruit production to food supplies and politicians, this week we can only find problems.

Let’s start with packaging. Much has been made of the ‘unintended consequences’ from cafés, fast food chains, pubs and supermarkets switching from plastic to other materials in a bid to be (or appear to be) more sustainable. Recoup has had quite enough of it: the switches are done “without consideration for the effect on overall recyclability”, the charity said, and people are being “lulled into a false sense of security regarding recyclability and environmental sustainability claims”. Its new report, ‘Material substitution’, details some of the changes being made, including glass to paper-plastic (popular among wine and beer brands currently), plastic to paper-plastic (for meat trays) and of course plastic to plastic-lined cartons for milk – and explains why they mightn’t be as sensible or sustainable as consumers (and companies) believe.

It might be interesting to hear Recoup’s take on Wagamama’s packaging revamp. Salads are reportedly now in cardboard not plastic (though it isn’t clear whether the card has a plastic liner). The chain said it has removed 330 tonnes of virgin plastic from its takeaway packaging by switching from PP (polypropylene) to 70% rPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) and shrinking the size of the bowls (but not the portions we assume) by 20%. Bio-based and biodegradable materials were trialled but recycled plastic was best. “[…] packaging 90 degree ramen noodles securely enough to bounce along the streets of London in a Deliveroo scooter without leaking is far from easy,” said Morrama, the designers behind the changes.

Packaging prices have shot up in recent months, and hospitality firms continue to find it tough to deal with rising prices for just about everything. In CGA and Fourth’s latest business confidence survey, 71% of hospitality businesses said energy costs have gone up significantly, while 60% reported food and drink is much more expensive. Average prices on menus have already increased 9% and are likely to rise another 6% within the next 12 months, business leaders said. 

Despite these difficulties sustainability remains front of mind. Almost half (49%) told CGA/Fourth that they plan to introduce measures to reduce their carbon footprints, with reducing energy use or switching to renewable sources, consolidating deliveries, working with greener suppliers, reducing waste and adding more plant-based food to menus among the priorities.

As well as high prices, many hospitality businesses are struggling to get hold of the products they need. Some 81% have experienced shortages of key foods and drinks, with 62% reporting that products haven’t turned up. Down on the farm there are problems aplenty too, but Defra continues to deploy the ‘hands over the ears and say la la la strategy’ (which particularly harsh cynics might argue is more effective than the department’s new food strategy).

The NFU this week warned that £60m of fresh produce was wasted in the first half of the year due to workforce labour shortages. The prolonged dry weather and record temperatures are creating further problems, too. Experts told the BBC that the harsh conditions would see a rise in ‘wonky’ produce – in particular potatoes, apples, carrots, onions and Brussels sprouts. Vegetables this autumn and winter "may not look normal, but will taste the same", said NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw. Defra moved to offer more support for producers impacted by some of the driest weather for decades. “We are better prepared than ever before for these unprecedented dry conditions,” said environment secretary George Eustice (in between the ‘la la las’, we guess).

Eustice will soon have a new boss of course. PM candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak this week outlined some of their commitments to the environment via blogs for the Conservative Environment Network. Truss said she was an environmentalist before it became fashionable, while Sunak said his two daughters would spur him to leave the environment “in a better state for the next generation”. Sunak’s vision, which includes using genetic technology to help farmers improve yields and cut back on pesticides is available here, while Truss’s much shorter green offering is available here

Also making plans this week was Carlsberg, with a new net-zero commitment. The beer-in-hand carbon footprint of its drinks will fall by 15% by the end of 2022, and by 30% come the end of the decade. The brewer also wants to deliver ‘zero packaging waste’ in the same timeframe, as well as increase the share of its low- and no-alcohol drinks to 35% by 2030 (an interesting aside here was news that Japan has launched a campaign to encourage consumption of more alcohol).

Still with drinks, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners has created a sustainability-linked supply chain finance programme. The scheme, operated by Rabobank, will reward suppliers that make sustainability improvements, offering discounts against funding for projects that will help reduce emissions. The programme is linked to CCEP’s net-zero by 2040 target and will help reduce the firm’s scope 3 emissions (which make up over 90% of its total footprint).

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