City to Sea: 8 in 10 food-to-go giants failing to tackle single-use plastic

A survey of 20 of the UK's largest food-to-go outlets has found that more than eight in ten have introduced no policies on removing single-use plastic from consumer-facing operations this year.

The report describes the food-to-go sector as "sandwiched between" Covid-19 and the war on plastics

The report describes the food-to-go sector as "sandwiched between" Covid-19 and the war on plastics

Conducted by environmental not-for-profit City to Sea – which runs the Refill campaign on water bottle reuse – the analysis explored the plastics strategies of the UK’s top food-to-go-brands in terms of turnover and tracked how Covid-19 has affected progress. Included in this cohort are the likes of Burger King, Subway and Pret-A-Manger.

Overall, the findings paint a damning picture. In both the contemporary and traditional food-to-go spaces, more than 80% of businesses had not introduced any policies on reducing single-use plastic for front-of-house operations in 2020. Some had also paused water bottle or coffee cup refills.

Both pre-pandemic and presently, City to Sea found, businesses which have made efforts to reduce single-use plastic are still prioritising material substitution over reuse. Only half of the businesses serve drinks consumed in-store in real crockery cups and only one in five brands provide reusable cutlery for those who dine in. And a similar proportion fail to offer free drinking water.

These findings suggest that the sector as a whole is not following the Waste Hierarchy – Defra’s legally enshrined framework for resource management. The framework positions reusables and using less materials above introducing alternative materials. Both of these approaches are positioned as more important than recycling.

Consultancy Eunomia helped City to Sea to produce the analysis.

Recovery planning

City to Sea has chosen not to publish a ranking table of the companies it surveyed, in recognition of the major economic hit the sector has taken amid Covid-19, but said in a statement that it will do so next year.

In a drive to help the sector increase ambitions and actions on plastics in the coming months, the report outlines a set of recommendations, headlined by the need for properly embedding the Waste Hierarchy in business models and processes.

Recommendations on reuse include introducing free drinking water refills; incentivising reusable coffee cups; only using crockery for dine-in customers and investing in plastic-free milk systems. There are also recommendations on transparency, and on removing promotional offers on items housed in single-use plastic.

“The crisis of Covid-19 has left many outlets sandwiched between an environmental and a public health crisis, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” City to Sea’s chief executive Rebecca Burgess said.  “Now is the time for the food-to-go sector to step forward and lead the way.”

City to Sea additionally reiterated some of its policy priorities, including the introduction of mandatory ‘plastic packaging footprint’ reporting for large businesses; new financial deterrents for companies under better Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws and fast-tracking the proposed deposit-return scheme. The report comes just days after the Environment Bill returned to Parliament following an absence of more than 200 days. Progress on the Resources and Waste Strategy has also been delayed due to coronavirus.

Sarah George



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