Pret-A-Manger: We can't greenwash our way out of the war on plastics

EXCLUSIVE: As consumers continue to push hard for food-to-go brands like Pret-A-Manger to ditch plastic packaging altogether, the firm's global director of strategy & sustainability has urged the sector to avoid "over-simplified" announcements or token phase-outs.

Gutowski will appear at day one (4 February) of edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020, to deliver a workshop on developing circular economy business models which engage all stakeholders

Gutowski will appear at day one (4 February) of edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020, to deliver a workshop on developing circular economy business models which engage all stakeholders

Over the past two years, consumer awareness of ocean plastics pollution and systemic issues with the global plastics recycling sector have grown to reach a fever-pitch, with eight in ten UK adults now ranking packaging above cost in terms of what they prioritise when choosing food and drinks and policy cracking down on food service items such as plastic straws.

The effect of this rapid change in demands is already tangible at all of the UK’s largest supermarkets, where ‘plastic-free’ labels – or even whole aisles – are becoming a regular feature on shelves, as are refill offerings with no packaging at all.

But the nation’s biggest food-to-go vendors have been slower to react. Just over a year after Blue Planet 2 aired, Burger King and McDonald’s had not yet removed plastic straws, plastic cutlery was still being sent as standard with Deliveroo and Just Eat orders, and the uptake of Refill stations had largely been limited to independent outlets.

Pret-A-Manger, however, had just backed Refill as its first corporate partner and was already offering customers the biggest discount on the high street (50p) for coffee cup reuse. The firm did so fairly quietly, with its only big, resource-related announcement of recent times being the expansion of its shop floor coffee cup recycling scheme.

Explaining the reasoning behind this approach to communications in a time when news of corporate plastic “bans” regularly feature in national papers, Pret’s global director of strategy & sustainability Laura Gutowski told edie: “A simplified message would be more impactful with most of our customers but if it’s not the right thing to do, we won’t do it.

“Our company values stand completely against any kind of greenwashing.”

To that end, Pret recently conducted its first materiality index for packaging, covering not only plastics content but issues such as embodied carbon, transport emissions and chemical impact. It concluded that the lifecycle emissions of aluminium for beverage packaging were, on average, 11 times higher than PET. Glass’s lifecycle emissions were found to be 30 times higher.

“When asked what the biggest environmental risk right now is, we have climate change as the top priority,” Gutowski, who will be speaking at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details) elaborated.

“I think single-use plastic is the number one thing we hear about from our customers, but concerns about climate change and carbon are gaining ground. Extinction Rebellion has really kicked that off in people’s hearts and minds.”

Balancing act

Whether the general public is beginning to connect climate change with packaging, however, remains to be seen. Gutowski argued that citizens concerned about climate change are more likely to focus on air miles, deforestation and food waste than the lifecycle carbon footprint of packaging when choosing food.

She highlighted Pret’s most recent customer survey on what sustainability action they expect from the brand, in which most respondents said they wanted rapid action focused solely on plastics. The smallest proportions were accounted by people who claimed not to care about the environmental impact of their food and drink to-go at all, and those who said they are aware that brands must balance considerations across various areas to avoid unintended consequences. Each of these demographics accounted for less than 10% of the respondents.

Gutowski said that communicating all environmental impacts relating to packaging can be “very challenging” in the digital age, where lifestyles are becoming busier, misinformation can spread globally in seconds and where the public are quick to take brands to task on Twitter over green issues. Iceland, for example, was slammed for failing to meet its palm oil phase-out deadline, while McDonald’s was taken to task over the fact that its paper straws are not recyclable.

“Pret’s position on plastics is that it’s not an inherently evil material; that there are non-recyclable and single-use plastics we’d like to get rid of, but that it often serves a purpose,” Gutowski summarised.

“Obviously, we’re aiming for reuse wherever we can, and it would be great to be in a situation where we didn’t need single-use plastics. As it stands, we’d like all of our plastics to be made from recycled content and for it all to be recycled.”

Wake up and smell the coffee

This, Gutowski was quick to point out, does not mean that Pret doesn’t see systemic issues with plastic production, pollution and recycling as part of its sustainability remit.  

A key plastics focus to date for the firm has been coffee cups. While rigid plastics such as soft drinks bottles have been collected by local authorities at kerbside and on-the-go for years, coffee cups can only be recycled in select infrastructure. The paper cups are commonly sealed with a plastic lining to make them waterproof. Although both materials are recyclable, the lining cannot be handled by most recycling facilities, while the paper is subjected to contamination issues.

In a drive to solve this infrastructure issue in a way that would ensure system-wide benefits beyond its own operations, Pret joined Valpak’s cup recycling scheme. Along with competitors including Costa Coffee, Pret pays extra to incentivise waste collectors to take coffee cups and to minimise contamination, and for Valpak to act as administrator for a national cup recycling system and to report on recycling rates.

The Valpak scheme has been widely credited with helping to boost UK recycling rates for coffee cups from one in 400 in 2016 to one in 25 in 2018.

Key to its success, Gutowski claimed, is the scheme’s ability to help food-to-go businesses collaborate with each other, the waste management sector and policymakers in a pre-competitive manner. This, she explained, has been key to creating a system in which consumers are not left confused about cup recycling amid a string of dissimilar communications and infrastructure on their local high streets; the scheme enables all participants to collect cups from one another and provides them with the same best-practice advice on facilitating collections in store.

The remaining challenge for Valpak scheme members now, Gutowski concluded, is helping the general public realise that coffee cups are now recyclable in the UK, after they were told they weren’t in 2016.

“We now have more capacity to recycle cups than cups on the market; we’re in a good position in regard to infrastructure – we just need to actually get them recycled,” she said.

Her sentiments are shared by DS Smith – one of the UK’s largest coffee cup recyclers along with James Cropper. The firm recently expanded its cup recycling offering to mainland Europe but claims it still experiences issues in collecting cups, due partly to a lack of public awareness and partly due to the fact the waste stream has not historically been assigned value by collectors or policymakers.


Pre-A-Manger at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020

Pret’s global director of strategy & sustainability Laura Gutowski will be appearing at day one of edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum 2020, to deliver a workshop on developing circular economy business models which engage all stakeholders. 

During the two-day event at London's Business Design Centre on 4 & 5 February, some of the biggest companies, individuals and organisations championing sustainability will gather to discuss the emergency response in transitioning to a net-zero economy.

The flagship, multi-award-winning event features keynotes speakers including former President of Ireland Mary Robinson; Rebecca Marmot, Unilever CSO; Tom Szaky, TerraCycle CEO; Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich CEO plus directors and senior managers from Interface, Vattenfall, John Lewis, Taylor Wimpey, Aviva, Pernod Ricard, LEGO Group, M&S, Diageo, Tesco, WSP, BASF, Mondelēz and more. For details and to register, visit: https://event.edie.net/forum/


Sarah George



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