The BBC Blue Planet II series has attracted a great deal of attention – and not just for the amazing wildlife photography and filming. It has also raised awareness of the critical and growing problem of waste plastics and the billions of tonnes of the stuff littering our planet and causing untold damage.
There can be few people who are unmoved by this problem – how can you not be affected by the sight of a giant whale trying to swallow a plastic bucket, or a turtle stuck in nylon rope or trying to eat a plastic bag? We have to do more to protect the fragile world we all occupy.
Of course, the UK foodservice sector can’t solve the pollution problems of the world single-handedly, but we can set a high standard to follow and do our bit to reduce the impact of plastics. The challenge with many waste reduction exercises is that there can often be a cost involved to change behaviour and/or a non-plastic option may not do the trick.
For example, take the current ‘hot topic’ of drinking straws – you can replace with paper straws but they are more expensive and have you ever tried drinking a thick smoothie with one? It doesn’t work. However, what we can do is replace with paper straws where we can, reduce consumption (most of the time that I’m given a straw in a soft drink or cocktail, I don’t need it so why am I being given it?), and recycle properly.
Some recent research by Mintel showed that 40% of out of home hot drink consumers asked would not mind paying more for drinks in 100% recyclable cups. That does beg the question, of course, of whether 60% of consumers would object to paying more. The research also showed that more younger people (51% of 20-24 year olds) are happy to pay extra, so perhaps there will be a growing recognition that we need to change and the young may lead this ‘revolution’.
We all need to look inwardly and reflect on what we use plastics for and is it always necessary – all that cling film, the plastic packaging, plastic takeaway bags, and so on? Are we recycling it as much as we can? Are we talking to our clients and engaging with them on this subject? It’s not just about caterers and clients either. How many times have you looked at the waste packaging left over after a supplier delivery and wondered ‘why?’
We certainly have too much waste plastic as consumers. I separate rubbish at home and recycle constantly, and it’s surprising how quickly the bag fills up. High street stores have come in for criticism recently about waste plastic – coconuts wrapped in plastic or cauliflower ‘steaks’ in plastic trays with plastic wrapping do nothing to enhance their eco-credentials.
So how do we change consumer behaviour? I think this is a really difficult one. People rarely volunteer to pay more, even when they know it’s the right thing to do, because they are considering their personal situation and budget first and foremost. And as we all know, people rarely think that they have enough money so are unlikely to volunteer to pay even more. In which case, can we learn from the 5p plastic bag government regulation?
Plastic bag consumption has dropped significantly now that consumers have to pay for them in retail stores and most have switched to re-usable bags instead. I’m not generally in favour of even more government legislation, but I do wonder whether this is the fairest way of changing behaviour and making things happen. It also sets us all on the same path so it would be a level playing field.
Whatever the solution, the growing realisation is that neither businesses nor consumers can continue to ignore this major issue. We have to start thinking of solutions, and it will be interesting to reflect back at the end of this year on what impact we have made.