Pret A Manger’s head of sustainability questions MP’s coffee cup inquiry

Pret A Manger's head of sustainability committed to "maximising" renewable and reusable packaging for coffee cups, but has questioned whether the Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry into disposable coffee cups is the best way to promote resource efficiency and sustainability in the UK.

Earlier this month, MPs re-opened an inquiry to investigate methods such as taxes and deposit return schemes as potential solutions to the UK’s waste problem, which sees less than 1% of disposable coffee cups recycled in the UK.

Pret is one of the many high-street food chains that has attempted to tackled that particular issue by incentivising customers. Customers visiting Pret A Manger stores across Greater London since April 2017 have been offered a 25p discount on hot drinks if they bring in a reusable cup. The company has since extended this offer to all UK stores.

However, Pret A Manger’s head of sustainability John Isherwood questioned whether mooted levies on coffee cups from the Government is the best way to improve recycling rates. Speaking at edie’s Responsible Retail event in London last week, Isherwood instead suggested that incentivising consumers to play a more prominent role in recycling would have a greater impact.

“Are cups really the worst thing out there that’s not being recycled?” Isherwood said. “Has anyone conducted a proper scientific review of the most valuable materials in the UK and assigned a priority of action?

“We could have really recyclable packaging material and low-waste solutions for quite a lot of things, but if citizens don’t put those things in the correct places then they won’t get recycled. Unless we take the consumer with us and transform them from a consumer to a citizen then I think we are going to struggle for a long time. They have to understand the reasons for our decisions. If they don’t play a part [in this] then we have wasted a huge amount of resource.”

Customer questions

More than 5,000 coffee cups are discarded every minute in the UK, but less than 1% are actually recycled, due to a plastic lining on the interior of the cups which can’t be collected by local councils.

Paper coffee cups are in the spotlight because they are a visible example of a more widespread issue concerning packaging, waste and litter in the UK. Proportionally, coffee cups account for a tiny percentage of total UK litter; just 0.7%. Drink cans and bottles, confectionary packaging, fast-food packaging and smoking-related litter are all part of the wider problem.

Isherwood noted that he received “more customer questions about packaging than any other sustainable business issue”. Pret has been working with companies such as Simply Cups and A Short Walk to introduce recyclable and renewable packaging for its coffee cups.

Pret conducts lifecycle analysis on packaging, and Isherwood noted that paper cups is second on this analysis based on volume produced, however the number one impact was not disclosed. Any moves to champion new forms of packaging would have to incentivise consumers rather than add extra emphasis, and possible penalties to businesses, he added.

“We really want to work with our supplier base to maximise renewable packaging, we want to fire the renewable packaging through to our customers and to incentivise our customers to use them,” Isherwood added.

“It is difficult to get sufficient and efficient amounts of recycled [plastic] because there isn’t enough demand for it and the only way to spur demand is to say we want that and to commit to that. We need responsible engagement from citizens…contamination gives us a real challenge.”

Isherwood also added that coffee cups had resonated more with consumers as a waste issue as it was easy for them to visualise and understand. While consumers interact with these cups and can see them littered across streets, other impacts such as intensive farming or climate change are more disconnected.

Delegates at the event agreed with Isherwood that more had to be done to reach out to consumers, and Isherwood reiterated that company’s commitment to championing new forms of packaging, including plastic water bottles.

In fact, Peter Goodwin, founder of Simply Cups – which recycles single-use paper cups for the likes of McDonald’s and Costa – previously insisted that brands aren’t deliberately misleading the public when it comes to their cups being ‘100% recyclable’, and noted that contamination and sorting issues were the main barrier to overcome.

Matt Mace

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