09 May 2019

The impact of BBC One's Blue Planet II programme has been huge regarding the way we all think about how plastics are used and disposed of, with consumers calling for the policymakers to address the environmental impact as a matter of urgency. According to statistics from the Surfers Against Sewage website (SAS), in 2016 a global population of more than seven billion people produced over 320 million tonnes of plastic, and this is set to double by 2034. When it comes to the food and drink industry plastic is everywhere – bags, straws, packaging for products and much more. WRAP has formed the UK Plastics Pact, which it describes as a “trailblazing, collaborative initiative that will create a circular economy for plastics. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK governments and NGOs to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.” One of the organisation's objectives is to have 100% of plastic packaging be recyclable, reusable or combustible by 2025, and businesses that have pledged to generate change within this campaign include multiples like Tesco, Waitrose and Aldi.

Change has been afoot within the big supermarkets, with one of the biggest adjustments being the charge for single-use plastic carrier bags, which came into effect in 2015. The big retailers have also set out plans to continue reducing the amount of bags in stores - the Co-op, for example, has replaced single-use carrier bags within almost 1,400 of its stores with the UK's first compostable carrier bag. Defra released data for the year from April 2017-2018 showing a fall of 86% in the number of single-use carrier bags issued by the seven largest retailers. Packaging in stores is also a huge issue, and Iceland has stated its aim to remove plastic packaging from its own label range completely by 2023, and according to the website its Mumbai Street Co and Mexicana street food meal ranges are in paper-based trays that have already saved 850 tonnes of non-recyclable black plastic so far.

Online shopping

Online shopping is also key to consider – with orders placed online, no matter what the contents, often an unnecessary amount of cardboard, paper and plastics are used. For retailers delivering fresh produce to the customer's door some wrapping is needed in order to preserve the contents, but more can be done to ensure the least amount of plastic waste possible. Riverford has already been involved in moving towards a more plastic-free experience with its fruit and veg boxes – stating that its veg boxes contain “82% less plastic packaging collectively when compared to representative, packaged products across seven UK supermarkets”. The company also uses compostable beech netting and says that by the end of 2020 it will be using certified home compostable plastic for all punnets and bags.

How to help

Want to know more ways that you can help the issue in your shop? Catherine Conway, founder and director of Unpackaged Innovation Ltd has this advice:

“The first place to start is to understand what plastic you use in your business and why, which means an audit back and front of house, because knowledge is power. Once you have a list then you just need get stuck in, don't aim for perfection, just try different things but communicate with your customers as you go so you take them on the journey with you - in the current climate they will be expecting you to take action. The best place is to start with items that are in your control or that you use a lot of as that's where you'll see the biggest impact of any changes, for example items you buy in for your deli counter or your cafe. The waste hierarchy is reduce, then reuse, then recycle. Be brave and see what you can get rid of with no effect on your business - do you really need to offer straws, sachets or the like? What could you replace with bulk alternatives?

“Also think about how can you help your customers reuse. Enable them to bring their own containers to any fresh counters you have, incentivise them to do so through your loyalty schemes. What you can use less of or swap out for better alternative materials? While the jury is still out on whether paper bags are actually less carbon intensive than plastic, at least they're easily recyclable at home for your customers which is key, otherwise you're passing the problem onto them. And remember to talk to your customers, ask what plastic they are frustrated with and how you can help them."

Ben Aveling at Radmore Farm Shop is serious about reducing the amount of plastic that his business uses, and has already taken steps to make it more environmentally friendly:

“One of the most effective ways we have achieved this is by buying bulk veg and selling them loose by weight, which means that no plastic is needed as well as cutting down on plastic and packaging that’s not necessary, for example only using products that have a like-minded ethos or use biodegradable packaging. We also sell alternative packaging like paper bags and beeswax wraps to offer our customers a more plastic-free option to their storage at home. We offer only paper bags for our fruit and vegetable selection and our shopping bags are made of paper. Our customers, if they choose, can request a plastic bag if the amount of shopping is too heavy for a paper bag. We have also researched our own plastics that we use so we can advise customers on where and how they can be recycled.”

This article originally appeared in Speciality Food Magazine