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Viewpoint: Plastic packaging isn’t the problem – our recycling infrastructure is

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Viewpoint: Plastic packaging isn’t the problem – our recycling infrastructure is

After all, the incentives for procuring and recycling plastic should make business sense, says Steve Fox, purchasing director at Bartlett Mitchell

There are many ways to respond to the problem of plastic in our everyday lives, and lots of people will have a different view. But one thing is for sure: banning the use of plastic packaging isn’t the answer. Having a strategic government policy to enable an integrated recycling infrastructure definitely is.

We are all becoming more aware of the fact that there are a number of widely recyclable plastics available. The most commonly used for food packaging by foodservice businesses is polyethylene terephthalate (commonly known as PET).

Sustainability-focused caterers are also able to procure packaging that has a significant percentage of recycled product (RPET) included in its manufacture. However, the demand for recycled PET outstrips supply. Why? Because there isn’t enough recycling going on in the UK.

Even though we are doing the right thing by procuring in a sustainable way, it’s what is done with our packaging after its single use that is the problem. In Sweden they produce around a quarter of the plastic waste that the UK creates per person per year. This number is so low because the country has a strategic government policy to enable an integrated recycling infrastructure to flourish.

In the UK there is no government involvement or support in the recycling infrastructure. It is in the hands of the private business, who will only recycle if they can make money. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s what business is all about – but there is an issue here.

Since PET is a byproduct of oil, its price is linked to that of the petrochemical. So when prices rocket, the value of PET is high, and recyclers can make a good margin from selling RPET back to the manufacturers. But when petrol prices drop, it can become cheaper for manufacturers to buy virgin product. As a result, businesses cease trading and the capacity to recycle reduces further.

That’s why integrated recycling infrastructure measures are required. I believe we need a subsidy if the price of recyclable material falls below a certain price and a payback to the government if it rises above it. This way, the recycler is guaranteed a margin and it’s in their interest to maximise the volume of product processed.

Another option is to put a tax on virgin product so recycled product is competitive by default. At the moment oil is trading at circa $75 a barrel, so recycling is commercially viable – just!

There are great initiatives going on to reduce the amount of plastic used to package food in supermarkets and to increase both the use of recyclable plastic and the volume of plastic that gets recycled. The UK Plastics Pact being one of them (although I struggle to understand why the timeline to achieve it is 2025).

However, this does not address the issue of the grab-and-go plastic requirement in foodservice for which there isn’t a sustainable alternative that is commercially  workable. We don’t need government threatening to ban plastic straws, plastic cotton buds or put a tax on disposable cups (the latte levy) and then failing to do anything. We also don’t need politicians to be seen walking into Downing Street clutching a reusable coffee cup to demonstrate they are doing their bit to save the planet.

We do need a strategic government policy to enable an integrated recycling infrastructure in the UK that will drastically reduce – and ideally eliminate – our contribution to the world’s waste plastic problem.

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