Moving forward with foodservice packaging

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

The hiatus in UK governmental policy and EU directives doesn't mean the foodservice packaging supply chain can afford to stand still. Diverting resources from landfill will require action from every part of the chain. David Burrows, freelance writer, reports from the recent Foodservice Packaging Association's seminar.

It was clear from the turnout that last month's Foodservice Packaging Association's seminar was timely. The European Commission was reconsidering its circular economy package. The UK government was under fire for its failure to take the lead on waste policy. An influential committee was undergoing an investigation into curbing litter.

And the quality of recycling was on the wane.

Let's not forget too that there's a general election around the corner, which could mean a new government and at the very least there will be another reshuffle of the ministerial pack.

But could this heady mix of political change and legislative challenges add up to a more certain future for those in the foodservice waste supply chain?

That's one for the crystal ball

For the moment, there is clearly a need for more collaborative thinking.

Mark Pawsey, the MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the packaging manufacturing industry, had this warning as he took in the afternoon's debate.

"The concerning thing is the undercurrent that you guys need regulation before you sort it out for yourselves. If you don't sort it, government will tell you what to do and more quickly than you might like [and then] you'll be whinging to me about it."

Defra, the department responsible for waste policy, has made no bones about its reluctance to regulate. Its move to step back from policy and let business take the lead on waste has been widely reported. The lack of statutory recycling targets for local authorities was a focus for Andrew Bird's presentation.

"I hope it doesn't happen [but] I think recycling rates will drop this year," warned the chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), admitting also to a "real fear" that EU targets to recycle 50% of UK household waste by 2020 will not be met. "Setting direction and policy will give confidence," he added.

Bird explained how policy in the devolved nations of the UK is developing at different paces with challenging targets in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland delivering "real progress".

In England, by contrast, policy is "weak" with "no direction from government".

Representing Defra was the joint head of the producer responsibility team, Sarah Steeds. She maintained that the department is "still committed" to meeting the 2020 targets, but the new levels put forward in the EU's circular economy package would be a "huge challenge".

That package would have seen recycling targets upped, landfill bans put in place and a revamp of a number of waste directives.

Since the seminar, of course, ministers have adopted a general statement of support for the European Commission's work programme for 2015, which includes the withdrawal of that package and the promise of a new more ambitious proposal.

An overly ambitious target?

Jane Bickerstaffe, director at Incpen, made the point that the 70% recycling target for household was a tad ambitious. She argued that 69% was the best that could be hoped for and that was assuming very high participation rates and only 10% contamination.

Some seemed to welcome ambitious targets and a focus on quantity. Others feel quality has to be the focus with contamination levels rising all the time.

"The quality of collected materials is going down," said Jane Bickerstaffe.

Challenging targets

Steeds at Defra noted that the proposed aluminium and plastics targets - 90% and 60% by 2030 respectively - were particularly challenging. She said that local authorities are "uniquely positioned" to facilitate access to household packaging but "getting the right thing in the right bin is now the challenge".

This is where foodservice, in particular, has had its work cut out.

High street chains, for example, lose control of the packaging once it leaves their restaurant.

"Once our [coffee cups] hit the high street, our control [over where they end up] diminishes," admitted Costa environment manager Oliver Rosevear. The public mindset is also very different at home than it is on the street, not least if there isn't a suitable bin available for their recyclable waste.

A live inquiry by the Communities and Local Government committee is looking at ways to tackle litter and the £1bn clean-up bill. This could include taxes on companies that produce packaging that ends up on the ground rather than in the bin.

Martin Kersh from the FPA isn't sure that more red tape will work; rather a change in consumer behaviour is required.

Could bigger fines help?

"I don't think the penalties for littering are severe enough or enforced enough," said John Isherwood at Pret A Manger. "The fear of being fined and being named has changed behaviour around dog poo."

Fast food companies are clearly finding it hard to engage with their customers - even in the shop.

Isherwood explained how the company has tried various front of house segregation schemes, but found that "co-mingled is the simplest [so] let's start with that". WRAP director Richard Swannell agreed, adding: "You can't have 25 different bins."

Location is critical it seems

Mike Hanson, head of sustainability at catering company BaxterStorey, explained: "One of our clients found that if they put the recycling bin by the door [of their canteen] everything went into that. If they put the general waste bin by the door, the same thing happened. Put the general and recycling bins together and people [separate and] recycle."

It's not only public-facing communications that have to improve in order to ensure the right things are put in the right bins.

Evident from the FPA seminar was a friction between waste contractors and foodservice companies with food and drink contamination a real problem.

Who should pay to clean the packaging?

Companies like McDonald's said waste contractors need to be realistic, and understand that the packaging will have residues in it.

Recycling experts said extra washing required additional investment that was not generally covered by the final market price.

One solution, of course, is compostable packaging.

Yet Hanson at BaxterStorey suggested that moving to "100% compostable" across all packaging lines can be a bit misleading given that access to food waste collections is limited.

"Only four per cent of our locations have access to commercial composting facilities," he explained.

In a statement following the conference, compostable packaging manufacturer Vegware noted that: "the perceived lack of access to composting is to do with current market distortion creating a lack of collection routes for commercial food waste to go to [commercial composting sites], rather than a lack of infrastructure to process the waste".

According to Swannell at WRAP, 56% of the packaging and non-food waste from the foodservice and hospitality sectors could have been recycled. In fact, 1.3 million tonnes of packaging from the sector is thrown away.

However, there are signs that the sector and its waste contractors are beginning to make some headway with a new voluntary agreement showing "better than expected" first year results.

The Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement has saved firms £10m in 12 months, with recycling rising from 46% to 54% - putting the 70% target for the end of the year within reach.

By then there should be a new European waste policy package on the table and there could be a new tenant at Number 10 Downing Street. Perhaps this will result in the vision and certainty many are calling for?

As one expert suggested: "What would help is if we all worked together from the start."

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