As things currently stand, by 2050 there could be more plastic in our waters than fish. This is quite an upsetting prediction. Not just for fish and ocean lovers, but for anyone with even a modicum of environmental awareness, which seems to be most people after Blue Planet’s watershed series last year…pun intended. With the programme being a catalyst for change across the restaurant industry over the last eight months, we thought we’d share our perspective on the single use plastic discussion.
What are the changes being made? Do they make a difference? What are the other challenges faced by the restaurant, food & drink industry? And, in terms of impact, how does the problem of single use plastic measure up against other global environmental problems?
What’s all the fuss about?
Mainly the unfathomably large amount of waste we’ve produced, the havoc it seems to be wreaking on the animal kingdom and the unknown effects of micro-plastics on humans. Since the 1950s we have produced 6.3bn tonnes of plastic waste.
Of that, only 9% has been recycled and 12% incinerated. The rest has been left on nature’s doorstep with some going into landfills. However, most ends up in the sea, where salt water and UV light break it down into micro-plastics small enough to be consumed by and collect within fish.
The effects of these micro-plastics on fish are still being determined, but there is some evidence that they absorb toxic chemicals and then release them in an animal’s digestive system. Another study revealed quite a disturbing set of results whereby nano-plastic particles lodged inside fish brains made them eat slower and explore their surroundings less.
Although there is no evidence that links the harmful effects of micro-plastics to human brain tissue or human health in general, it does make one wonder what the future holds for the fishing and restaurant industry.
In terms of people’s current aversion to single use plastic, it is mainly the ‘eww’ factor and the effect on animals that has captured the nation’s hearts. This in turn is motivating the restaurant industry to ban plastic straws and introduce recycling measures, amongst other things.
The Blue Planet effect…
AKA the naughty school kids effect, is quite an interesting phenomenon to consider before moving on to what the restaurant industry has done, is doing and pledges to do in the fight against single use plastic and the drive for a sustainable future.
Sticking with the school metaphor…it is as if, prior to Blue Planet, we were all passing notes around about some piece of gossip. Except it wasn’t about who did what at the weekend, it was about the environment. We were all part of the rumour mill, sharing our tidbits like conversation fodder. Each of us trying to shock one another and perhaps ourselves into action.
Some of us even joined an after school club to try and make a difference or occasionally became an eco warrior on the weekend. But it took the headmaster (Sir Attenborough) to stand up in assembly and school us, with simple words and devastating pictures, for us to be collectively affected.
Collectively being the operative word here. Most people will have seen videos on social media or heard from a friend or learnt at school or saw in the paper that climate change is an issue and that we are screwing the environment, but because all these instances happened on micro occasions, as individuals or in small groups, we could ignore them.
However, when roughly a sixth of the country sits down to watch a television programme and talks about it with each other the next day, we all had to look each other in the eye, like naughty school children caught with our hands in the cookie jar. We had to collectively do something. So as the media got involved and the people resolved to change, the restaurant industry was forced to evolve to meet consumer expectations. But how much change has been made and is it for the right reasons?
Single use crackdown in the restaurant industry
Some in the food & drink industry have been espousing a reusable and recyclable way of life for some time now. Namely Borough Wines & Beers, one of our longest-standing clients, whose wonderful shops can be found across London, nationwide and online.
They pioneered “the environment (and wallet!) friendly wine and beer refill system” whereby you bring your own bottle or buy one of theirs and refill it from their lovely barrels. The barrels are filled using wine from large boxes and these boxes have a considerably lower carbon footprint compared to a 75cl bottle of wine. This is due to the manufacturing, storage and transport costs involved. And, as mentioned, the price of refill wine is slashed for the consumer (by about 50%) making it win win. Although, overall consumption of wine may go up!
Apart from small independent shops and chains, like Borough Wines and Beers, the use of reusable items is not hugely prolific. Unlike the replacement of plastic straws with biodegradable or paper alternatives, which has been widely adopted across the restaurant industry. The banning of plastic straws seems like a success story then right? But before we cheers each other with our coffee cups and paper straws, maybe we should look at what our cups are made of…Also, why haven’t straws and cups always been paper?
The truth is that even an easy shift like plastic to eco-friendly straws is ruled by economics. Previously plastic was the cheaper option, but now being environmentally friendly has its cost benefits. First, in terms of customer loyalty. According to the Sustainable Brands organisation “80% of consumers say that they would feel more loyal to brands that value community and environmental growth over money and status.” Second, in terms of ROI. The CDP produced a report showing how businesses get an 18% higher ROI when they have a CSR strategy against those who don’t.
The Green Pound
But does it matter that some restaurants may only ban single use plastics in order to capture the green pound? In some ways no, for ultimately as long as consumers care, it’s the end result that matters. But in some ways yes, because true sustainability is about changing the business model, so that purpose comes before before profit.
Purpose and profit must be going hand in hand, however, when the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s get involved. The former has promised to collect and recycle the equivalent of all the drinks containers it sells each year, which amounts to around 110bn plastic bottles. The latter plans to make all its packaging from recycled or renewable sources by 2025.
With these big hitters in the restaurant industry playing ball, single use seems to be on its way out.
Single use smokescreen
Although ethical spending has doubled in the last ten years and although there is extra limelight on being more sustainable, is it possible that the banning of single use is a smoke screen for most in the restaurant industry? It is hard not to say yes when one considers how less than 7% of the of U.K. restaurants are members of the SRA – the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
It is made even harder when one looks at the waste produced by the restaurant industry. According to the Green Restaurant Association, the average restaurant wastes between 25,000 and 75,000 pounds of food every year with the total amount of waste produced by the U.K.’s food and hospitality sector reaching 1m tonnes according to WRAP. By WRAP’s calculations 75% of that waste is avoidable and the worst offender within that group is the restaurant industry.
Food waste might not seem as bad because you think of it as biodegradable, but when you think of it in terms of manufacturing, packaging (hello again single use), transport and storage, its alarming impact starts to add up. For instance, the food wasted by the UK restaurant industry each year creates the same amount of CO2 as running 400,000 cars.
Now that we’ve begun to look at different factors affecting the environment it is worth noting how single use plastics are a relatively small problem to humans globally. Also, the single use catastrophe is mainly being carried out in Asia. This was proven last year by scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research whose work found that ten rivers discharge 90% of all plastic marine debris and eight are in Asia.
Credit: Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters
But let’s put our single use finger wagging to one side as it appears there are environmental issues far more serious than single use plastics, at least in terms of costs to human beings. Trucost and the United Nations Development Programme have both released data on environmental costs and where plastic litter costs $13bn per year, the cost of overfishing, fertiliser run off and ocean acidification have been estimated at $50bn, $800bn and $1.2trn a year.
Also they found that if plastics were replaced with comparatively heavy wood and metal substitutes, the greenhouse gas emissions would quadruple. To put this into more real terms for the average UK shopper: a cotton tote bag should be used 131 times before it beats a plastic bag in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
It would seem from a macro point of view that the single use problem is simply the cherry on top. Hence perhaps why it has been so easy to tackle. Like an unpleasant cherry sitting on a very unpleasant sundae, it is the easiest thing to extract. When it comes to the layers and layers of other problems, which are all melting together to create a sticky armageddon-sized mess, we don’t know where to start.
The problems are so deeply entrenched and part of our lives. But one part of our behaviour we can change is to stop unnecessary single usage. Also, it is often the way, that after making one change you feel empowered to make another, so even if it is on an individual level and even if it is only a small step in terms of restaurant industry wastage, one has to feel that this is the beginning of something. This is a sea change as it were, because what we put into the sea has to change!
Education, incentivisation and mobilisation. These are the three ‘ations’ that need to be kept front of mind for restaurants and other businesses, as well as governments, schools and communities.
So there! JAMS has spoken. For now anyway. But keep your eyes peeled for our review of Petersham Nurseries, whose sustainability efforts are worth remarking on!
Team Tip – ecoffee make really great reusable coffee cups that are made from one of the most sustainable products on the planet – bamboo. And they look very pretty too!