Our reliance on convenience food and drink is ‘killing the planet’, and it’s on you and me to fix it, says Safia Qureshi, CEO, CLUBZERO.
In the UK we consume five million tonnes of plastic each year, yet shockingly only a quarter is recycled. Unfortunately, the plastic that isn’t enters our environment, overflowing landfill sites, polluting oceans, and damaging our ecosystem.
Currently there are five trillion pieces of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, and by 2050 research suggests the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish.
WWF forecasts that by 2030 we’ll use 33% more disposable cups and lids, 9% more drinks bottles and work our way through 34% more crisp packets
To break this down further, in the UK we use seven million disposable coffee cups and 38.5 million plastic water bottles every day, but only one in 400 coffee cups and 15 million plastic bottles are actually recycled.
In fact WWF forecasts that by 2030 we’ll use 33% more disposable cups and lids, 9% more drinks bottles and work our way through 34% more crisp packets. Also, taking into consideration the millions of single use plastic food containers and wrappers that the UK uses every day, it’s clear the plastic waste we generate from convenience food and drink is significant.
But what solutions can we put in place to overcome it?
The industry’s response
The UK charity Wrap is attempting to address the problem with their UK Plastic Pact, an initiative which aims to create a circular economy for plastics, by bringing together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK governments and NGOs to tackle plastic waste.
While Wrap’s ambition gives us hope, the problem at hand is so vast it’s unreasonable to think they can do this alone, especially when the overall amount of material suitable for recycling has only improved by 1% since 2018.
Is recycling enough?
There’s no doubt that recycling plays an important part of the circular economy, but there are many challenges and limitations.
Coffee cups, for example, are notoriously difficult to recycle because their inner lining is made from paper and plastic to make them heat and leakproof. This mix of materials means the recycling process is complex and only a small number of specialist recycling plants in the UK have the machinery to do it.
As a result, most single use coffee cups go straight to landfill. Whereas food containers are typically made out of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polypropylene (PP) plastics which are more easily recyclable.
But recycling plastic isn’t a long term solution. Most plastics can only be recycled once or twice because the quality deteriorates every time, they’re melted down to make a new product. In fact many recycled plastic items reach their end of life so quickly they end up in landfill or polluting the sea, like their non-recyclable counterparts.
The importance of reusables
Given recycling plastic is a complex and limiting process, the convenience food and drink industry needs to consider other solutions to tackle the plastics problem, such as reusables.
As consumers become more environmentally aware, the demand for reusables has risen significantly. Over the last five years, we’ve seen a surge in reusable cups with 69% of UK consumers now owning one.
Although, the challenge is that only one in six people say they remember to use their cups when they buy a hot drink, with some feeling uncomfortable asking cafes to rinse their cup out if they’ve already used it that day. This means many consumers are still relying on single use coffee cups.
Returnable packaging system
Now the pandemic is easing and many of us are returning to the office a few days a week, buying food and drinks on the go has become a priority again. But taking your own reusable cups and food boxes is often not practical.
A returnable packaging system for food and beverage brands, offering reusable cups and food boxes to consumers for free with an incentive to return them, is a good way to cut down on plastic. To return their reusables after use, you could ask consumers to either take them to specific drop off points or do pick-ups from home.
Small steps towards solving the plastic crisis
It’s clear the amount of plastic used every day is so vast that we simply cannot solve it overnight. Recycling is one part of the equation, but more needs to be done to embrace a reusable culture, like collaborating with food and beverage brands to implement a returnable packaging system.
This offers a smart, scalable solution to help eliminate the industry’s single use plastic problem and work towards a zero waste future.
Sadly, it’s abundantly clear that we can’t rely on big business or political leaders to act decisively. Big business has the power to change and most are moving as consumers’ demands for more sustainable packaging grow. But this is more to keep pace with rivals and CSR pledges rather than to meet the targets our plant needs.
Sadly, it’s abundantly clear that we can’t rely on big business or political leaders to act decisively
Similarly, high level political pledges to take decisive action seldom translate into actionable frameworks that force businesses or consumers to change in any meaningful way. That’s why we and startups like us within Unreasonable Group are trying to force change through innovation. But it’s also on each and every one of us to change.
Until then, we need everyone to take small steps every day to reduce their plastic consumption and use reusables when they can. Only then might we have a chance to ease the plastic crisis and reduce the impact on our planet.
CLUBZERO is an Unreasonable Venture, a leading impact investor which accelerates the growth of high impact companies that are solving humanity’s most pressing challenges.