| Sustainability

Is banning single use plastics jumping from the frying pan and into the fire?

England uses around 2.7 billion items of single-use cutlery (most of which are plastic) and 721 million single-use plates per year, but only 10% are recycled. To help reduce the widely documented pollution caused by these materials, the Government will make a wide range of single-use plastics banned in England from 1st October 2023.

The ban includes single-use plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers and will mean people can no longer buy these products from businesses such as retailers, takeaways, food vendors, and the hospitality industry.

While we should welcome the Government’s decision, we must also recognise that it’s equally important to support those affected by the ban in sourcing alternative products. Vitally, this means taking the time to assess the various options available and ensuring that the product selected is indeed more sustainable than the single-use plastic it is replacing. We must remember that single-use plastics in themselves are not the villain, if disposed of responsibly they are indeed easily and widely recyclable. The issue comes with human behavior which results in large quantities of these items being littered. It is only then that they become a lost resource and have a negative impact on the environment and ecosystems.

A knee-jerk switch to an apparently more sustainable product is something to be avoided, but an opportunity to think differently. The result can easily see businesses opting for materials for which there are very few recycling options and limited infrastructure available. Examples might include some compostable products and packaging. On the face of it these sound highly sustainable and to a point this is true. If littered, they do eventually degrade far quicker than the single-use plastic equivalent but unless there is a way to segregate these materials from other waste streams; someone to collect them, and a facility capable of recycling them the benefit is lost. Indeed, they will in all likelihood end up in landfill producing methane or being burnt and producing carbon dioxide.

So how can the retail and hospitality sectors ensure that they maximise the environmental benefit in switching from single-use plastics? The first thing to do is to try not to switch to another single-use material. If possible, promote products that are reusable such as steel cutlery, reusable plastic tableware or ceramic plates. This will undoubtedly be easier if you are operating in a ‘closed’ environment such as an office canteen or a school. It is harder if you are in an open or takeaway environment but this can be tempered with a deposit scheme. In this situation, it is best to take advice on what products are the most sustainable, not only in terms of their recyclability but also in relation to their manufacture, production, and circularity credentials. Wood cutlery for example may be a better single-use alternative as it is 100% renewable albeit more expensive.

Reconomy specialists will be able to advise your business on the comparative sustainability of many products and can undertake Environmental Product Disclosure (EPD – Type III) assessments, taking into account their environmental impact across the whole lifecycle.

For more information or support in transitioning from single-use plastics contact 0800 074 1533.


Insight paper: Designing out disposables

Understanding the single-use hierarchy

Download here