The environmental and economic impact of litter from cafes, pubs and restaurants as they turn to food on the go

Brian Mayne reflects on the implications of cafes, restaurants and pubs offering food on the go.

As visitors flood to the nation’s beauty spots and city centres as Covid-19 lockdown is eased, cafes, pubs and restaurants not normally selling food on the go are gearing up to serve takeaways from their premises. What will be the environmental and economic impact of this increase in fast food-related packaging and paraphernalia as the amount of ready-to-eat food and drink that is eaten on the go increases?

Before COVID we were eating and drinking increasingly more whilst on the move. The UK’s food-to-go sector was worth £17.4 billion in 2017. According to Hubbub, this consisted of 13 billion plastic bottles, 9 billion drinks cans and nearly 3 billion coffee cups in the UK every year! Sadly, a lot of these single-use containers along with the other packaging used for takeaway food end up as litter when discarded by customers irresponsibly. In 2018, the Great British Spring Clean identified that fast food-related packaging accounted for a third of all litter.

Apart from the environmental impact of this litter, there are the costs to cash strapped councils of picking it up and disposing of it. A consequence of businesses moving from providing meals on their premises to offering takeaways is that the waste and recycling the business puts out for collection is likely to decrease which will impact on the income generated by Councils who operate commercial waste and recycling collection services from food outlets. Additionally, it is likely to increase the waste in Council litter bins, a further burden on their finances.

Apart from the economic impacts, there are other negatives of litter, according to Keep Britain Tidy, such as the adverse impact on our mental health and wellbeing, increase in crime rates, damage to properties by vermin and road traffic accidents. As well as the on people our wildlife suffers, the RSPCA receives around 5,000 calls a year regarding litter.

These issues are likely to escalate as a result of the increase in outlets offering food on the go. Already Keep Britain Tidy ‘ fear a litter epidemic as lockdown eases’ and we are seeing headlines in the media blaming an increase in litter on customers of fast food outlets after the reopening of drive-thrus.

But it’s not only litter what about the environmental impacts of the manufacture of the materials used for take always and the limited availability of facilities for consumers who want to recycle the materials. Less than half of local authorities have recycle on the go infrastructure to collect and recycle the items used.

As regards the materials used for take away containers, a life cycle assessment of the impacts of three most widely-used types: aluminium, polypropylene and extruded polystyrene, found that single-use polypropylene containers are the worst option for seven out of the 12 impacts considered, including global warming potential. They are followed by the aluminium alternative which had the five highest impacts, including depletion of the ozone layer and human toxicity. The research identified that extruded polystyrene containers have the lowest environmental impacts due to the lower material and electricity requirements in their manufacture. However, as they are not commonly recycled it cannot be considered a sustainable option. In addition, polystyrene discarded carelessly by consumers is commonly found as marine litter on our coastlines and in the oceans. As well as being unsightly, once in the marine biosphere, polystyrene threatens biodiversity, and also results in a number of other negative social and economic outcomes.

So, what can be done, well the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which is about making sure businesses that manufacture, import and sell products are responsible for their end of life environmental impact, should shift the responsibility from Local Authorities to businesses for removing and disposing of the littered products. This will help Local Authorities financially, transferring the cost of preventing and clearing up common items of litter including fast food packaging could save them in the region of £300million each year. This is especially significant when budgets will be under even more pressure than they were pre COVID. But the introduction of EPR is some time away.

Increasing the number of facilities for people to recycle in public places would certainly help to enable recyclable materials to be recovered from the waste stream. Although there would need to be a concerted awareness campaign as the public are often confused about what takeaway packaging can and can’t be recycled. To this end the success of #InTheLoop a collaborative campaign designed by Hubbub to make on-street recycling work across the country may be one way forward. Their project in Leeds, which introduced 186 new recycling points, has collected good quality recycling, with all bottles, cans and cups recycled in the North of England, and the number of people recycling in Leeds City Centre tripling from 17% to 49%. I’m looking forward to hearing Alex Robinson, Director at Hubbub, share the successes (and failures) of these campaigns at the CIWM Resource Conference Cymru 2020.

In the short term, we will need a zero-tolerance policy to litter investigating and taking appropriate legal action including cautions, fixed penalty fines, and prosecution to deter culprits and encourage responsible waste management. In addition, every business will need to be reminded that they have a legal responsibility to manage the waste they produce and if they sell food-on-the-go products, they also need to recognise that they share a wider social responsibility to encourage their customers to dispose of their food packaging correctly. And finally, we will need to focus on public engagement and awareness if we are to combat this problem. As they say in Leithers ‘It’s a takeaway, not a throwaway’.

Continue the conversation on Connect.


Food and Drink Business: UK Food-to-go Market to Reach £23.5 Billion by 2022

RSPCA: How littering affects animals

Keep Britain Tidy

Kent Online: McLitter: Drive-thru opening blamed for takeaway waste

BBC: Coronavirus: KFC lockdown litter in Beccles angers thousands

Gallego Schmidab, Alejandro & F.Mendozaa, Joan Manuel & Adisa Azapagica Environmental impacts of takeaway food containers Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 211, 20 February 2019, Pages 417-427 

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