Business today: the greenwash diaries

1st November 2019


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Zak Quinn

The UK government's fixation on single-use plastic will win votes and keep businesses happy. Why? Because none of the new policies will break the single-use status quo.

I'll focus here on just one line of the recently published 232-page Environment Bill: “The regulations may specify only items which (a) are single-use items, (b) are made wholly or partly of plastic, and (c) are supplied in connection with goods or services.“

Once again, the focus is on single-use plastic rather than single-use full stop. Once again the message is: plastic bad, non-plastic good. This, of course, is a vote-winning strategy if the consumer surveys are anything to go by. And you might think that this makes life uncomfortable for brands that have pandered to (and pushed?) our grazing, on-the-go culture here in the UK, building their models and margins on single-use packaging.

However, you'd be wrong. These businesses don't have to rethink their models and operate deposit and return schemes for reusable packaging – they just have to switch away from plastic. This is what the public wants, and what the politicians are telling them. In the UK, extended producer responsibility (EPR), the plastics tax and a deposit return scheme (DRS) will make single-use packaging more expensive, but not enough to force a revolution based on refillables and reusables. The new charges will help, but not as much as you might think.

Adding a 25p charge to compostable cups in parliament resulted in a 75% fall in the number of hot drinks sold in disposables. Total sales remained the same – people sat in with a ceramic cup or brought their own reusable one. That's evidence of a charge's benefits, right under the government's nose. Roll that charge out nationwide and the behaviour shift won't be anywhere near as high: maybe 20% or 30% of drinks will be sold in reusables. That's far better than now (1% to 2%), but it leaves 70% of disposable cups in play. Currently, only 4% are recycled.

It isn't just cups. Sales of food-to-go are booming (and will increase by 26.4% during the next five years, according to food and consumer research charity IGD). There are now 25% more takeaway outlets than three years ago; we have 8,149 coffee shops; and 76% of us buy lunch out every day. All the while, on-the-go recycling infrastructure is crumbling or being ripped away. Anyone who thinks cash from EPR and a DRS will reverse that trend are mistaken.

The Single-Use Plastics Directive – which the UK will likely implement – isn't really any better. It “promotes circular approaches that give priority to sustainable and non-toxic reusable products and reuse systems rather than to single-use products, aiming first and foremost to reduce the quantity of waste generated“. Sounds ideal.

However, the definition of single-use plastics is open to debate. All we know is that they “should exclude plastic products that are conceived, designed and placed on the market to accomplish within their life span multiple trips or rotations by being refilled or reused for the same purpose for which they are conceived“. So does that mean closed loop recycling – for example a plastic bottle recycled back into a plastic bottle – is fine? Once again, the focus is on single-use plastic rather than single-use packaging. And the big foodservice brands know that.

Take McDonald's, which just trialled a 'nearly plastic-free' store in Berlin. “We really went all in,“ reads the blog. “Edible waffle cups replaced condiment sachets and containers. Paper straws replaced plastic straws. Wooden cutlery replaced plastic cutlery. Sandwiches were wrapped in packaging made from grass, not paper. And Chicken McNuggets were served in paper bags, rather than cardboard boxes.“

So, all McDonald's has done is switch from one type of single-use packaging to another and branded the whole operation 'sustainable'. Makers of single-use non-plastic packaging are rubbing their hands. This is greenwash by regulation, and McDonald's et al. are lovin' it. But is this really the future we want? I thought this was about a reduction in the consumption of vast quantities of single-use packaging – and not business-as-almost-usual.

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher. His reports include The Future of Foodservice Packaging (Footprint) and Grocery Packaging in a Sustainable Future (The Grocer).

Picture credit: iStock

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