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Single Use Plastic under the microscope after 17 million Britons watch Blue Planet

ocean waste

National Treasure David Attenborough shocked the world with the final episode of Blue Planet that demonstrated the extent of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and it has sparked quite a debate.

This was followed shortly after by a parliamentary committee report on disposable coffee cups and plastic waste that singled out the items for a prospective tax that has been catch-ily dubbed the ‘Latte Levy’ by the tabloids.

So, what is the problem with plastic and how might new taxes affect traders? Will the levy work and importantly, is this the tip of the disposables iceberg?

Due to the recent statistics on waste revealing that the UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year, the Environmental Audit Committee called on the Government to apply a 25p tax charge on all drinks served in disposable cups, and to set a target to ensure all take-out coffee cups are recycled by 2023.

The Government have initially rejected the proposal, favouring a voluntary system of offering discounts on coffee to customers who bring their own reusable cups, which has been introduced at many large coffee retailers nationwide.

However, coffee cups currently make up only 0.7% of the paper packaging waste in the UK. The reason coffee cups are difficult to recycle is due to the plastic lining adhered to the inside of the paper, and this leads us to the much bigger issue of the overall amount of plastic waste that is produced by the UK.

8 million tonnes of plastic were dumped in the world’s oceans in 2017, and only 9% of all plastic waste has been recycled in the past 60 years. Plastics take a minimum of 500 years to degrade, meaning all plastic that has ever been made is still on earth. Where? In landfill, oceans and the food chain.

supermarket plastic bags

What’s being done now?

The UK Government’s recent 5p tax on plastic carrier bags has proved effective in reducing waste, as, since its implementation in 2015, there has been an 85% reduction in single-use carrier bags given out at stores. After BBC’s Blue Planet 2 was aired at the end of 2017, the public’s concern for the environmental effects of plastic waste has risen extensively, and videos like BBC Radio 5’s footage of the hordes of plastic floating over five miles wide in the Caribbean, have received tens of millions of views online.

The ‘latte levy’ may have initially been met with resistance, but it is highly unlikely that the government and environmental organisations will do nothing about the crisis. As of January this year, the manufacture of plastic microbeads has been banned in the UK, after reports there are an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s seas, much of which is killing wildlife around the globe. The Environmental Audit Committee published a report on plastic bottles in December, with recommendations for waste producers to pay for more recycling, a mandated proportion of recycled materials to be required in new products, and the introduction of a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.

The Government released The 25 Year Environment Plan in January 2018, which specifies targets for improving the health of landscapes, seas, and wildlife at a national scale. The Plan sets out targets to eliminate all avoidable waste by 2050, to reduce carbon emissions in order to halve the effects of air pollution on health by 2030, and to work towards clearing the seas and oceans of all waste which originated on land.

The Government have announced they plan to publish a Resources and Waste Strategy in 2018, but the exact date of this is currently unknown. What we do know, is that the approaches to reducing plastic waste that are being discussed will affect the food industry.

enviro cup

How will it affect the events industry?

We’ve already seen Glastonbury take the lead in banning all plastic bottles at next year’s festival, and where Glastonbury leads, others are sure to follow. Bestival have banned all plastic straws from being given out on site this year, and Shambala are charging an extra 25p for all drinks served in a disposable cup in order to pay for the correct recycling processes they require.

Enviro-Cup are a UK-based company providing an alternative option to the plastic pint cup. These stainless-steel cups are durable, reusable and fully recyclable. The cups can also be branded with company or event logos, help to keep cold drinks cool for longer, and are manufactured locally. The company also offer holders for the cups, such as lanyards and belt attachments, to prevent spillages and discourage littering.

The cups were launched at the 2016 Glastonbury Festival, where festival-goers were able to purchase the 150,000 stainless-steel pint cups supplied for their drinks and return them to earn back their deposit. Enviro-Cup have now been shortlisted in the Best Eco Products category at the Global Good Awards 2018 for “The Ultimate Solution to Reduce the Use of Plastic Drinking Cups”. They have also teamed up with Raw Foundations and are supporting their recent publication for events organisers: ‘The Making Waves Guide to Plastic-Free Events and Festivals’.

compostable forks

What are the packaging alternatives?

Packaging labelled ‘biodegradable’ is able to decay naturally over time into smaller particles, but this time frame is difficult to determine, and the process creates methane, a greenhouse gas, which contributes to air pollution. The decay of biodegradable plastic also leaves an enormous number of miniscule particles of plastic behind. These particles then pollute the soil, and are consumed by wildlife, and ultimately, us.

Compostable disposables however, are designed to be recycled alongside food waste, where they break down into soil in under 12 weeks. The gases collected from this process are then burned to power electricity generators, making the product fully recyclable. The compostable packaging market is fast-growing in the UK, with companies like Vegware and Biopac leading the way in providing fully-compostable packaging to food businesses. Most NCASS members now opt for compostable packaging for the food items they sell, and this greatly improves the sustainability of their businesses, when compared with plastic alternatives.

Biopac gave us their take on the issue: “Biopac is pleased with the high amount of press around single use disposables and recycling in the UK. Such levels of exposure will only help highlight the ongoing issues that the industry is facing. We would like to reiterate our stance that taxing the use of these items is not an effective way forward, and merely patches over the underlying issues with waste management and infrastructure in the UK. Biopac specialises in compostable packaging and their disposal. We welcome the ongoing discussions surrounding this important issue but will continue to push for compostable packaging to form part of the solution.”

One limitation, however, is that compostable products require the appropriate resources to be composted successfully, and there are an insufficient number of facilities available that can achieve this. Certain food types, such as meat and animal bones, do not compost, and packaging that is contaminated by these foods will be sent to landfill due to this problem.

compostable packaging

So, what’s the solution?

Evidently, more needs to be done to increase recycling and composting facilities in order for the use of more sustainable packaging to become the norm for UK consumers. This will require funding, and if the Government chooses to charge the consumer to obtain this money, it is likely to be through the implementation of a tax, such as a ‘latte levy’ on items made from plastic.

How will this affect caterers?

The 5p carrier bag charge is currently only voluntary for small businesses, and we believe it’s likely that a coffee cup tax will be implemented to similar rules. However, there is a chance that such taxes could be brought in for all businesses at a later stage, and this is why we want to support mobile traders and protect them against the detrimental affects this could have on their businesses.

We contacted Cliff Eden, an NCASS member who has been a mobile coffee caterer for seven years, for his opinion on the issue: “A levy does nothing to get cups recycled – it simply fines customers for choosing a takeout drink. Most of my customers are at events or markets in tourist locations. They make an impulse buy. They won’t carry a cup around with them.

“Asked if they will pay an extra tax on top of the cost of their coffee, most have said that they’d not make the purchase. So the Government risk putting mobile coffee vendors out of business. The problem at present is that the logistics to collect and recycle the cups isn’t in place. The Government should focus on this rather than extra taxation and, as they suggest in their report, an eventual total ban.”

Chris Harrison, of Shoot the Bull, has been an NCASS member since 2015. His opinion: “From a business perspective, it’s a bit of a scare however for the sake of the environment I think it’s great. We do use bio-degradable cups and lids; I know the UK doesn’t actually have the infrastructure to fully cope with this and sadly some will end up in landfill anyway. We promote the use of our KeepCup, a Riverhouse branded reusable travel cup. This is the answer and the most environmentally friendly option. This has to be the future.”

NCASS Director Mark Laurie says, “Compostable packaging has been pretty much standard in the events sector for many years and is increasingly so in street food, however, the lack of suitable facilities to deal with them in an environmentally-sound manner is nothing short of a scandal. This proposed Levy could be extremely challenging for roadside caterers, coffee vans and indie coffee shops, but we believe that single-use plastic’s days are most likely numbered. We need solutions to this problem and assurances from government that steps will be taken to develop suitable facilities to deal with waste and that businesses trying to do the right thing won’t be punished.

However, if we are to move towards a more sustainable economic model, habits will change, and businesses will have to find ways to adapt to or even drive this change. This is not just about coffee, it’s about plastic and our society’s addiction to a throwaway culture that is damaging the planet. Whether we see this as an opportunity or a threat, change is coming, and we need to be prepared to influence and adapt to that change. One NCASS member, Tom Cheesman, has become so frustrated by the lack of facilities that he’s now looking into setting up his own composting facilities!”

Share your opinion.

How do you feel about the plastic crisis, the proposed tax, and the options available for small businesses? Get in touch – hearing your thoughts on these issues is what helps us do the best job of supporting traders across the country.

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Email with the subject line 'Plastic waste'

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