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UK single-use strategies slip away

Turtle emblems on disposable cups mark the latest EU assault on plastic waste, but UK plans remain a mystery. David Burrows reports.

In four months’ time single-use cups sold in the EU will have to display new markings. The labels, set out within the Single-use Plastics Directive (SuPD), include a picture of a turtle with a cup floating above and below the words ‘plastic in product’ (for plastic-lined cups) or ‘made of plastic’ (for those made entirely from plastic). Guidelines on these labels – the font to be used, its size and positioning – were finalised in December.

But will these markings appear in the UK too? It’s a question that has been thrown about of late. Footprint approached Defra in England, plus governments in Wales and Scotland and the answer is: we don’t know. What we do know is that the labels won’t be appearing here from July 4th, as they will do across EU member states, by law (they can use stickers for the first 12 months). Though that deadline could well be missed.

A recent statement from 19 EU industry groups, representing packaging firms, plastics recyclers and foodservice chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway, noted that the European Commission is running about eight months behind schedule on these rules. “Industry is willing to comply with this binding legal requirement but the tight time constraints (about four months at this point) make this impossible for many operators through no fault of their own,” they said.

There is a pandemic going on and it’s a fair bet that disposable cup labels aren’t a priority for member states battling wave after wave of covid-19 and a difficult rollout of vaccinations. Still, the labels are only one part of the SuPD, a directive that aims to reduce marine litter – which very much remains a public and political priority. “The covid-19 pandemic and climate change have amplified public attention for the plastic waste crisis we face,” said Hans Bruyninckx, executive director at the European Environment Agency in January.

Should we ease off a hospitality sector that has been battered more than most by the pandemic, though? Some feel the SuPD changes are a classic case of policymakers and politicians not understanding industry timelines (look what happened with the plastic straws ban in England last year). There is also confusion in some countries where labels might need to come in two or more languages.

What’s the appetite to make the labels mandatory in England, Wales and Scotland? There isn’t one, according to a blog last week by Vegware. However, it’s perhaps a bit more nuanced than that. After all, ministers in each nation have said plastic and environmental policies remain a priority, but it’s Scotland and Wales that are so far showing willingness to align closely with Europe on such matters. Both have completed consultations on another part of the SuPD, which relates to market restrictions on certain plastic items.

All quiet in Westminster

England meanwhile has banned plastic straws but gone incredibly quiet on any other waste and resources policies. Defra has been under incredible pressure from covid and Brexit but some trace the drop in activity back to when Michael Gove left the department. Under his leadership a new resources and waste strategy arrived in late 2018 setting out a series of new policies and commitments (deposit return schemes, extended producer responsibility (EPR) and so on) but the drift in some of these hasn’t gone unnoticed.

At a recent PolicyConnect webinar – marking two years since that new strategy was published – speakers noted “slow progress”. Many of the strategy’s key objectives were supposed to get legal footing through the environment bill, but that has been continually delayed (the emphasis on single-use plastic in both the bill and the strategy continues to concern those keen to address all single-use materials).

Rumours are now flying around that the crucial (and potentially world-leading) new EPR regime won’t be rolled out until 2025. The next round of consultations are due, but if they’re not released by March then local elections and the rules around purdah could get in the way. As Jane Bevis, executive chair and director of the on-pack recycling label (OPRL) suggests: “It’s really important to provide clarity about what’s going to happen.”

These consultations include the possibility of new on-pack labelling laws: 90% of those responding to the first consultation wanted binary labels (recyclable/not recyclable) to become mandatory. “Disposable cups filled at point of sale (such as a takeaway coffee) are classed as packaging and will be in scope of any labelling requirements implemented as part of the packaging producer responsibility reforms that are currently being developed,” said a Defra spokesman.

Empty cup commitments

But what about those turtle labels? The rules apply in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Protocol which was amended to include certain articles of the SuPD – though the deadline is January 1st 2022. That doesn’t mean we won’t see them before that, either in NI or the rest of the UK: manufacturers of cups rely on high volumes and small margins so may well be reluctant to offer products without the label for just one market.

There doesn’t appear to be much appetite for a mandatory approach though, at least in Westminster. The July 3rd 2021 deadline for transposition of the SuPD falls after the end of the transition period (December 31st 2020), so the current line, Footprint understands, is that the UK now has the opportunity to reprioritise and refresh its environmental policy (Northern Ireland Protocols excepting) and the focus will be on tackling single-use plastic items in ways that work best for the UK.

But divisions are appearing. A spokesman for the Welsh government explained how the recent passing of the internal market act may “hamper our ability to take some of the actions we have already committed to take [on single-use plastics].” He added: “… we have commenced legal proceedings to challenge the act and the potential ability for the UK government to fetter Wales’ ability to take action.” It is not however “actively considering mandatory requirements with regards to labelling [of cups]”.

Brexit certainly offers an opportunity to look at alternative approaches to match or better the outcomes across the Channel. What outcome a label with a turtle and the words ‘plastic in product’ is meant to achieve is unclear. It says nothing about what to do with the cup either (other than not to chuck it in the sea). A mandatory ‘recyclable/not recyclable’ label as part of EPR might help, but this needs to coincide with (heavy) investment in on-the-go recycling infrastructure. “Street bins are seen as a cost not as a resource,” explains Justin Turquet, head of sustainability at Bunzl catering and hospitality.

Trials to encourage on-the-go recycling in Leeds, Edinburgh and Swansea, run by Hubbub and including the likes of Bunzl, Costa, Greggs and Klöckner Pentaplast, show promise. And it’ll be interesting when food-to-go is back up and running at full strength whether the OPRL’s specialist label for cups (‘recycle at coffee shop’) is widely used and pushes the current 6% recycling rate upwards? “People want to make the right choices, they just have to be given the opportunity,” says Turquet.

Leading the levy charge

Inconvenience is the accusation thrown at reusable cups. An image of a turtle won’t solve that – but would a charge?

Scotland could lead the charge on a cups levy. Its expert panel said in 2019 that there is strong evidence that a separate charge for single-use disposable beverage cups should be put in place in Scotland. The government agreed that there is a “clear case for encouraging behaviour change through price-based interventions” and has included such powers in its circular economy bill. The environment bill, in England, will also offer powers to charge for single-use plastic items (again, the focus on plastic alone irks resource use and circular economy specialists).

Scotland is less convinced by the merits of a consumption reduction target for disposable cups. EU member states will have to offer up a target in July, alongside those turtle labels. Regarding those, a spokeswoman for the Scottish government said in an email that it is considering “how best to implement this requirement” but the current focus is on the proposed introduction of market restrictions for certain single-use plastic items. “We are also working closely with Defra in order to understand wider UK plans,” she added.

Businesses wouldn’t mind some clarity too.