Waste management: plastic not so fantastic?

By Claire Churchard

- Last updated on GMT

Reduce, reuse, recycle: images of oceans choked with waste are enough to put anyone off their pint
Reduce, reuse, recycle: images of oceans choked with waste are enough to put anyone off their pint

Related tags Waste management Plastic straws Plastic glasses Recyclable materials Recycling

Efforts to stop waste plastics polluting the environment are to be commended. But experts have warned that finding a solution to do this can sometimes have unintended consequences.

The Blue Planet effect has been a real phenomenon. Images of oceans choked with waste, much of it plastic, are enough to put anyone off their pint.

So in January, when a joint campaign to reduce the amount of single-use plastic being used in pubs was launched, it was no surprise that the sector was vocal in its support.

The campaign, organised by the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), UKHospitality (UKH), the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), and The Morning Advertiser (MA), focused initially on reducing the use of plastic straws and stirrers. And if the level of support on social media for #TheLastStraw is anything to go by, there are now considerably fewer plastic straws entering the waste stream.

Straws and stirrers were just the beginning. A key philosophy of the campaign was to encourage more pubs to reduce unnecessary waste to help the sector avoid the need for costly Government regulation. And people across the sector are doing exactly that.


Taking on the challenge

From Oakman Inns’ recent pledge to end the use of single-use plastic within the group by 2019, to industry suppliers such as Coca-Cola, Britvic and Premier Foods signing up to the UK Plastics Pact to reduce packaging waste, people are taking on the challenge.

Seaside pub the Anchor Inn, in Seatown, Dorset, has taken a particularly community focused approach to highlighting the issue of waste. It has put up signs offering a free hot drink to any customers who collect a bucket of rubbish from the beach. The pub also offers reusable cups rather than disposable ones. The Pig & Whistle, in Wandsworth, south-west London, has made the switch from plastic straws to biodegradable plastic equivalents, as well as offering wooden rather than plastic stirrers.

In fact many pubs have switched to using biodegradable plastic products as part of their efforts to reduce plastic waste. Of course there are many alternatives, including paper, glass and metal for straws. But pubs considering the switch to biodegradable plastic need to be aware that it needs to be processed in special industrial composting facilities to ensure it breaks down properly (see box below, Are your biodegradable straws being composted?).

To ensure this is happening, one pub group has installed its own composters on site. Anthony Pender, co-founder of the Yummy Pub Co, says its waste management company Waste Source collects its composted waste “so we know they are being composted correctly”. He says: “Most straws won’t break down in landfill or the sea if they are not disposed of in the right way. Many biodegradable straws are no better than plastic unless they’re in the right environment.”

The pub group has also begun to phase out disposable cups and pint glasses, saying coffee cups will be next. And the waste reduction efforts are bringing results. One of the pubs in the group, the Somers Town Coffee House in Euston, has seen a 50% fall in general non-recycled waste in the past three years even though sales at the site have grown by 23%, Pender says.

“The longer-term goal is challenging our supply chain to deliver with less packaging. Among our food suppliers we are encouraging reusable trays as opposed to cardboard or plastic,” says Pender. “I’ve no doubt that in the long run consumer pressure will drive this and be a help rather than a hindrance to small businesses like our own.”


Ambitious targets

Challenging the supply chain to reduce unnecessary packaging is a priority for the Waste and Resources Action Programme, better known as WRAP. The body recently launched the UK Plastics Pact setting out ambitious targets for suppliers. Big names such as Coca-Cola, Britvic and Premier Foods, have already signed up to the targets which include taking action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items and ensuring 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. The pact also requires signatories to recycle or compost 70% of plastic packaging and increase the amount of recycled content in their plastic products to 30%.

Peter Skelton, strategic partnership manager at WRAP, says that while we need to reduce plastic waste we “shouldn’t demonise plastic”. It plays an important role in protecting food and drink in transit and when it is being stored, he says. “Our vision for the pact is a world where plastics are valued and don’t leave the system so they pollute the environment.” But he says pubs that want to cut waste and reduce costs further could make improvements by looking at the packaging coming into their premises.

“Some pubs will be handling packaging, for example when they have ingredients brought in to their kitchens. Have a look to see if they are recyclable or talk to your suppliers to see if they will take them back. If pubs are being lumbered with lots of polypropylene food tubs, can they look at other premises and find a recycling stream for them?

“We want to help small businesses find a solution for this kind of thing, either using more reusable packaging or recycling the ones that we do use.”

Commenting on compostable packaging, Skelton says “a lot of businesses are seeing this as a panacea or a holy grail”. But, he adds, “it’s all about the context, so where is that packaging going to end up?”


Unintended consequences

If it ends up in with recycled plastics it becomes a contaminant stopping the plastics being recycled, or it can be sent to landfill or ‘energy recovery’ (also known as incineration), which is not good, Skelton explains. Or biodegradable plastics can go into food waste system, he says. “This is the area where, if a pub is running a closed system with food service and it is going to an industrial composting facility, then there is potentially a good argument for using compostable material. But most pubs, I think, probably wouldn’t be having food waste going with compostable packaging.”

If you’re still not sure if compostable plastics are right for your business, Skelton says: “We’ve got some guidance coming out shortly on the differences between compostable, recyclable and biodegradable packaging.

“But generally just switching from a conventional plastic to a compostable one isn’t necessarily the ideal solution. You have to find out where it is ending up. People should be wary of unintended consequences.”


What happens to packaging?

For pubs looking to find the right solution for reducing their waste, Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners, suggests asking suppliers the direct question ‘what will happen to this packaging at the end of its life?’.

Speaking at the recent Unpack The Future of Hospitality event, hosted by BII and UKH, he said: “This is a partnership with your waste management contractor. If you want to know what happens at the end of life of the waste you generate, ask them the direct question, challenge them.

“If they are doing their job right, and most of them are, there’s no real reason that what gets disposed of on premises ever gets anywhere near the oceans. There are waste management contractors that will give you the lowest level of service, but there are also those that will work with you to say ‘your waste analysis looks like this and if you segment it like this we can give you a much better outcome’.”


Up against a brick wall

However, even determined licensees can come up against a brick wall when it comes to reducing their plastic waste.

Heath Ball, licensee at the Red Lion & Sun, in Highgate, north London, has faced frustration in one particular area: plastic KeyKegs. They arrive at his pub full of beer, and sometimes wine, but unlike steel kegs, they are not collected when empty because they are deemed ‘disposable’. He told the MA: “We must have hundreds of them and the advice is to depressurise them, break them up and throw  them in the rubbish. It’s a waste.”

The plastic kegs are a cheaper alternative to steel kegs for some breweries, as they are lighter so cheaper to transport, and they don’t have to be collected.

Ball says he would prefer to recycle the plastic kegs but has found it difficult. The KeyKeg website says operators can take the empty vessels to their local recycling processor but Ball says he has looked into this online and it is not clear who these recyclers are.

“Where are people supposed to be taking them, and if it’s 30 or 40 minutes’ drive away, who has the time to be taking them there?”

The MA contacted KeyKeg for a response but had not received a reply by the time this article went to press. However, on their website the company says: “Our goal is to recycle every KeyKeg to produce new ones.”

As with biodegradable plastics and reducing packaging waste overall, recycling more plastic waste is a noble aim. But it won’t be achievable if accessible facilities are not easily available.              

Are your biodegradable straws being composted?

Mike Hanson, head of sustainable business at hospitality service provider BaxterStorey, told delegates that plastic biodegradable straws need to be commercially composted to ensure they are disposed of properly.

“If you don’t have access to that, you are wasting your money,” he said.

Another potential problem he highlighted was that while commercial composting is available, “they don’t really want packaging”, which includes straws.

“To make it work, processors need to fill their containers with 80% food waste and 20% packaging waste,” he said. Any packaging waste that can’t go into it will generally go to ‘energy recovery’ also known as incineration.

To read more see 'Questions raised over green credentials of biodegradable plastic straws'​.


Legislative impacts for pubs?

The Government is considering banning plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds after it has run a consultation on the issue later this year. If a ban comes in, pubs that have been proactive in moving to biodegradable plastic straws could find themselves on the wrong side of Government legislation.

Another issue is that there are licencing departments around the country that insist on the use of polycarbonate or plastic glasses in pubs on specific occasions such as match days, festivals, gig nights or after certain hours. If plastic cups are banned or heavily taxed, which could be the next legislative step, pubs will have to manage the consequences.  



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