As political and business leaders focus all their energies on tackling a global pandemic, Nick Hughes looks at the policies, from plastic bans to hospital food plans, that have been put on ice.
It’s hard to believe it was only in January that packaging groups were mourning the death of the single-use food and beverage sector. Covid-19 hasn’t quite stopped the plastics agenda in its tracks but a surge in demand for single-use cutlery, plates, cups and straws has given a glimmer of hope to interest groups desperate to stave off or water down a raft of bans and taxes.
Industry lobbyists have scored some notable victories already. A ban on plastic straws and stirrers has been pushed back by six months to October with DEFRA citing a challenge in sourcing alternatives. In Scotland, meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament recently approved legislation that will see a deposit return scheme (DRS) go live on 1st July 2022, 15 months later than planned.
Elsewhere, the Treasury has confirmed that its current plastics tax consultation, originally due to close on 20th May, will now be extended until 20th August. However, the start date for the new tax, which will apply at a rate of £200 per tonne of plastic packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic, currently remains unchanged at April 2022.
Work to further develop proposals for a DRS for England and Wales, a new system of extended producer responsibility (EPR), and consistency in waste and recycling collections has been temporarily put on hold, albeit DEFRA continues to meet with a select group of stakeholders to discuss specific issues relating to a DRS.
Despite the concessions made by governments north and south of the border Felix Gummer, director at sustainability consultancy Sancroft International, believes it would be a mistake to think the drivers for change in government policies and business commitments on packaging have gone away. “At most they have only been put on hold,” he says. “There are businesses with vested interests who will be making the case for a dilution of the current government policies and that is their prerogative. However, they assume that this will be ultimately successful at their peril.”
Gummer notes that both the plastics tax and EPR scheme will raise critical revenue at a time when the government will be desperate to claw back some of the huge sums spent supporting people and businesses through the coronavirus crisis.
He does, however, suggest that the minimum £1bn start-up cost and similar annual running cost of a DRS may give the UK Government “pause for thought”.
As for voluntary business commitments, WRAP says it is working closely with UK Plastics Pact members and Courtauld 2025 signatories to understand the impact of the pandemic on their ability to meet the targets and timescales. “As it stands, our members remain committed to the pact and commitment and we will continue to work closely with them to understand how we can best support them during this challenging time when their utmost priority has to be getting food onto shelves and into the homes of those who need it,” a spokesperson told Footprint.
Businesses were well behind the curve on sugar reduction even before Covid-19 struck. Since then, the focus of Public Health England (PHE), which coordinates the programme, has been on fighting the deadly pandemic. Businesses, meanwhile, have devoted every available resource to keeping food supply chains moving.
PHE’s latest progress report on its sugar reduction programme was due in the first half of 2020 but Footprint understands there is no prospect of this happening until the resumption of more normal business. Moreover, there is a chance ministers will push back deadlines for achieving sugar reduction targets to allow businesses some breathing space. The original target was for a 20% reduction in sugar by 2020 across food categories that contribute most to the sugar intake of children. Two years into the programme PHE reported just a 2.9% overall sugar reduction in retailer and manufacturer products and a 4.9% reduction across the out-of-home sector.
Similarly, long-awaited category targets for calorie reduction, originally due to be published a year ago, are still on ice. And although draft proposals for salt reduction were shared with industry stakeholders in February, Covid-19 has put paid to any further engagement.
With obesity emerging as a key risk factor in people’s vulnerability to the worst effects of the coronavirus, the government is certain to come under pressure to strengthen obesity policies once lockdown measures ease and business resumes.
Prime minister Boris Johnson is already reported to be planning a new public health drive, having blamed his stint in intensive care on obesity.
There have been mixed reports concerning the impact Covid-19 is having on food waste. WRAP has reported that better pre-shop planning and in-home food management have contributed to a 34% reduction in waste of potatoes, bread, chicken and milk.
However, research by the Sustainable Restaurant Association and Just Eat found that food waste in takeaway restaurants has increased during lockdown owing to unpredictable ordering patterns.
What we do know for certain is that engagement activities on food waste have fallen victim to Covid-19. The government’s Food Waste Action Week, which was due to run from 11th May as a week of activities to encourage households and businesses across the country to reduce food waste, has been postponed indefinitely.
Back in August last year the prime minister pledged “to make sure our world-class NHS has everything it needs to continue providing the very best frontline care”. Boris Johnson was referring to hospital food rather than PPE and testing equipment, but Covid-19 has meant the ambition to improve food quality in hospitals will have to wait its turn.
The Hospital Food Review, for which restaurateur and celebrity chef Prue Leith acted as an advisor, is understood to be written and ready to publish. However, as one source involved in the provision of hospital food put it: “There’s no point in releasing such an important document when there’s nobody there to take it on board.”
The COP26 UN climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow in November has been postponed due to Covid-19. Dates for a rescheduled conference in 2021 have yet to be finalised. The conference is considered hugely important as countries are due to submit new improved climate action plans that will limit global warming to the 1.5 to 2-degree targets set out in the Paris Agreement. It was widely thought that the diplomatic legwork needed to ensure parties submit ambitious plans was unlikely to succeed given the distraction of a global pandemic.
And one policy that is still on track…
The Agriculture Bill, which sets out a new framework for farming as the UK leaves the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, was passed by the House of Commons last week following its third reading. The bill is contentious, not only because some experts believe setting the future course for farming policy when food supply chains are in disarray is an act of folly, but because moves to safeguard UK food production and environmental standards have so far been resisted.
An amendment to guarantee a level playing field for imported food under the terms of any future trade agreement was voted down meaning there are still no legal protections to prevent controversial foods such as US chlorine-washed chicken being sold in the UK. This was despite an unprecedented coalition of farming groups and NGOs backing the amendment. The bill now passes to the House of Lords.