FPA Environment Seminar: an uncertain future for plastic

The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) is an organisation that enthusiastically represents the food and foodservice packaging industry. With plastic and sustainability being sizzling hot topics, we trundled along to the rather regal Stationers Hall, London, to listen to what they had to say at their annual Environment Seminar.

Photo by Ben Aviss.

Gold-leaf galore

Making our way into what felt like a grand stately home, we half-expected the cast of Downton Abbey to pop out at any minute and offer us a glass of sherry. But instead, we made do with examining the beautiful stained-glass windows and endless portraits of white-haired, serious-looking men that adorned the walls.

The morning session consisted of insightful talks from widely different angles, topped off with a panel discussion.

Professor Louise Manning from the Royal Agricultural University revealed her thoughts on unpackaged, open food products in supermarkets. Turns out – in the Western world at least – we take food safety for granted. Whether it’s fresh fruit and veg or uncovered meat, all types of terrifying bacteria are easily spread when we disgusting humans are allowed to touch everything. Plus, Louise raised a thought-provoking question: how do you mark allergens on unpackaged food?

In the name of balance, we then heard the passionate Rachel Edmonds champion the success of Waitrose Unpacked, a supermarket in Oxfordshire that has banished packaging once and for all.

Responsible for creating and launching the initiative, Rachel explained that customers bring their own containers in to fill up, covering everything from cereal to laundry detergent. Our favourite bit was the vegetable station, where visitors could take their treasures and have them prepared there and then. In place of buying packets of pre-cut veg, this is a great option for those of us who grapple with slicing butternut squash!

Although a seemingly positive scheme, the barrage of facts and figures – for example, ‘82,000 hashtag mentions on Twitter!’ – left us feeling a bit as though this was just a promotional feature for Waitrose. Greenwashing, anyone?

Waste vs. plastic

Although everything had checked out so far, there was an elephant in the room.

Back in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly announced it was the official year of reducing food waste. Several initiatives were put into place, including an ambitious goal to half the amount of food waste by 2030. In fact, there is now evidence to suggest that food waste is actually a more serious threat to the environment than plastic packaging.

So what about all that unpackaged, unpreserved, and unpurchased food left over at the end of the day?

From left to right: Professor Margaret Bates, Professor Louise Manning, Rebecca Sudworth, Rachel Edmonds, Paula Chin. Photo by Ben Aviss.

This was brought up by an audience member during the panel discussion. Rachel responded that Waitrose Unpacked actually alleviated food waste, as customers could just buy the amount they needed. While this may be true, it doesn’t acknowledge the amount of waste in-store.

The award for most poignant moment went to Professor Louise Manning, when she reminded us of the fact that ‘it’s simply not the reality for most people to shop at Waitrose.’ With the number of people relying on food banks rising dramatically every year, the Unpacked scheme could be regarded as a narrow-minded approach to sustainability, aimed squarely at middle-class consumers. What about lower-income shoppers, who have to feed their families on limited budgets and have other things to worry about than whether food packaging is reusable?

Climate and conflict

Just before lunch, we were treated to the main pull of the day: an appearance from the ubiquitous climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion. Neil Sheppeck – a member of Lambeth XR who runs a theatre company that focuses on climate change – took to the stage and was promptly met with hostility from the crowd.

Neil Sheppeck. Photo by Ben Aviss.

Whatever your opinion is on some of XR’s bolshie tactics, mild-mannered Neil certainly brought positivity to the table. He asked the room what he could do to help; how he could work alongside packaging companies, making it clear that environmental concerns are at the forefront of his campaign initiatives. Mainly consisting of peaceful picketing and strongly worded letters to Lambeth council. Not gluing himself to a train.

Possibly thanks to a skewed audience demographic, many seemed irked at his presence. The conversation didn’t stray into packaging territory, but remained firmly on the antics of XR, with one participant stating that businesses were just too scared to work with them.

We ended the morning session there, not quite expecting to feel so conflicted. Is reusable packaging a good idea or not? Should we be focusing on reducing food waste rather than reducing plastic? And why is this nice XR man being vilified for events out of his control? We decided to put that all to one side while we tucked into lunch – a tasty chicken curry washed down with sticky toffee pudding. Yum.

Back to reality

‘Single-use packaging is dead.’

Cue a room full of tense silence. What a way to start the afternoon session!

Lobbyist and all-round packaging pro Eamonn Bates brought a touch of reality to the seminar with his rousing talk. Exclaiming that it was too little, too late, he stressed that the EU Single Use Plastic Directive means that all single-use packaging is under scrutiny – not just plastic.

Eamonn Bates. Photo by Ben Aviss.

This directive was passed by the EU back in March 2019, and marks the plan to ban single-use plastic by 2021. Described as a ‘step towards establishing a circular economy’, Eamonn informed us he had been working closely with the team in Brussels on the directive’s progress. And he didn’t exactly have a glowing report. In fact, he predicted that we will not have harmony across the EU, as member states will just do what they want regardless. Plus, he thinks that the scheme was put together too quickly and will be impossible to implement. Pretty damning stuff.

The ban includes a wide range of food packaging, including plastic cutlery, plates and cups – items that contribute significantly to marine litter levels.

Eamonn was a very emotive speaker, throwing out cutting lines such as: ‘We’ve seen it with tobacco. Next, it’s us.’ His talk definitely felt like a warning cry to the food packaging world; times are a-changing, and you need to keep up.

The ‘B’ word

Next, we had updates on upcoming legalisation from Chris Preston and Janet McVea, working for the British and Scottish governments respectively.

In a contrast to Eamonn’s impassioned speech, the following discussions focused on the functional. Laying out achievements and plans for the future, Chris informed us that food waste is high on the agenda for 2020, with a proposed £15 million fund set aside to help tackle the challenge. Plus, we’re now living in a post-Brexit world. But this raises the question, how will we go forward and maintain good environmental standards, now we’re not automatically in-line with the EU?

Janet picked up where Chris left off, outlining Scotland’s plans to develop an ‘ambitious’ deposit return scheme. Plus, a 20p charge on coffee cups is predicted to encourage 49% of consumers to bring their own reusable cups. With constant references throughout the day to consumer behaviour and what exactly drives change, it will be interesting to see if this becomes a reality.

From left to right: Janet McVea, Eamonn Bates, Chris Preston. Photo by Ben Aviss.

The closing comments were from experienced consultant Steve Lee, who has worked in wastes and resource management for nearly 40 years. He echoed some of Eamonn’s sentiment, and stressed that the next five years would be very important in laying out the future of the industry.

Steve also offered his five cents on consumer behaviour, stating that ‘most normal people are not bothered, and have other things to worry about’ than food packaging. Therefore, consumer responsibility is likely not part of the future; or at the very least, the industry shouldn’t rely on it.

A whirlwind of uncertainty

So what did we learn?

That the future of food packaging is definitely uncertain, although it looks like plastic – as we know it, at least – is on the way out. The impact of food waste is looming, and needs to be tackled immediately. Plus, people can’t always be relied upon to make the right decision, so businesses must take on most of the environmental responsibility.

All this sustainability chat forced us to examine our own interaction with single-use packing. Bamboo coffee cups and stainless steel straws anyone?

Point 6 are doing sustainable lent! With staff swapping cars for walking and plastic for, well, no plastic, follow us on social media to find out how we get on…

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