Will we see the return of reusable products?

There is no question that the impact reusable products were having in the hospitality industry was nothing but significant, with its importance only growing. Over the last year they have been widely forced aside and the question now, however, is whether the catering, hospitality, and takeaway industry will ever see a widespread return of them?

As Covid-19 began to take hold of the United Kingdom in March 2020, Costa Coffee and Starbucks were high profile examples of this as they immediately cut refilling reusable cups as part of their offering in line with the government guidance, instead, switching back to filling single-use products. Transport services in the country, such as Great Western Railway and LNER, also followed suit and made the early decision to ban reusable cups on trains.

What is clear is that this pandemic is not going anyway any time soon. In fact, the talk has shifted as to whether we’re going to be required to live with this virus – with or without a vaccine. So, will the hospitality sector ever be in a position to safely factor in reusable products, or has the time come to begin discussing a new future-proof alternative?

At least 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each year in the UK, according to a government report published in 2018. Less than 1% of this gets recycled. Why?

The hospitality and foodservice industries have taken giant strides over the last decade to manufacture and produce products that are 100% recyclable. Coffee cups, ironically, being a prime example of that.

This global pandemic has exasperated that over the past year – especially with reusable products being removed as an offering – but should that recycling trend continue, there’s no doubt we’re going to face a huge environmental problem.

When we emerged from lockdown and returned to a degree of normality in 2020, we saw cafés and restaurants reopening. However, a huge downside of that was the images we saw across the UK of the huge increase in pollution in our natural beauty spots. This includes things like disposable coffee cups, food packaging, containers, and plastic water bottles — all items which are repeatedly on the worst offenders list when it comes to what is causing plastic pollution across UK beaches and rivers.

If we are to return to single use, it’s clear that far more education is required. Data shows that disposable packaging has been on the rise over the last year and that has only heightened the need for more education to ensure the customer who is holding the disposable coffee cup knows what to do with it when it is empty.

There is a similar issue with the term “compostable” as well. There is a general perception that if something is compostable, it will disappear over time. It doesn’t work like that. Yes, it will compost, but only in the right environment, rather than just being chucked into a bin bag. We need to work with everybody to spread the word for what products are capable of what when it comes to the environment. The industry is well prepared and continues to prepare some very good products when it comes to recycling.

If we had this conversation towards the end of 2019, we would have been talking about the importance of reusable products, like crockery and cutlery, but if you look at the marketplace now, everyone wants to be hygienic. They want single-use recyclable products that they can eat and drink from successfully and then be provided with the right place for it to be placed for recycling.

Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the middle between reusable and single use. Aesthetics are a huge difference between the two, with single use being designed to serve a purpose before it is thrown into the recycling bin, while effort goes into the design of a reusable product to increase its appeal. However, what if that was transferred over to single-use products and consumers were provided with an incentive to use that single-use plastic for something else entirely? Hacks for repurposing waste pop up on the website and social media all the time, but as for the hospitality and catering sector, it is an intriguing possibility whether this is something that can be actively considered in the future as part of our packaging.

Reusable absence is just temporary

What has been clear over the last year is that reusable products have not been totally abandoned and, in fact, there has been a willingness to find ways of reintegrating them.

Just as Costa and Starbucks took their reusable products off the menu, we also saw them attempt to bring them back before they were withdrawn again as Covid cases began to spike across the UK. McDonald’s also announced in September that it would be testing a new system of reusable, returnable coffee cups at some point this year.

Beyond what the news is saying, here are some further thoughts that have been contributed by three industry leaders:

Mike Strange, director of corporate catering company, City Pantry, said, “We’ve seen the hunger for reusable products amongst consumers and I’m confident that this will return as soon as permitted. Of course, some packaging isn’t appropriate to be reusable and innovation in compostable packaging is essential.”

Mark Hilton, head of sustainable business at Eunomia and co-author of City to Sea’s Food-to-go report, said, “There is a strong and building pressure to increase the use of reusables — the pandemic has only created a blip. Ireland and France have stopped the use of single-use cups for eating in for example, and refills in general are now strongly on the cards at the EU level.”

He noted that there is little evidence that disposables are safer and government advice is generally that reusables can be used. “In fact, logic suggests that reusables can be safer than single-use. For a disposable cup, store staff take the cup out of the packaging, touching it (often without gloves), hold it while pouring the coffee then have their fingers on the lid (to press it down), which people then drink out of! The user then puts that in a bin, which other people will touch.”

Dinesh Patel, a former MasterChef finalist, said, “Based on the current pandemic I don’t think it would be safe for us [anytime soon] to be returning to coffee shops with our reusable cups in hand. But moving forward, I do feel it’s important that food and catering industry companies need to focus and make smart choices on recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging and products.” He shared that, in the current climate, with a focus on safety, “many within the industry have unfortunately opted once again for single-use plastics but we need to remember that we can still make well informed and environmentally friendly choices while trying to be as safe as possible within regulations.”

I also believe that reusable products will return at some point in the future. For now, though, that’s not possible. Single-use will continue to be our go-to, but proper education is required to ensure that our use of it does not spiral out of control in the interim. The catering and hospitality sector has gone to great lengths, in my opinion, to become one of the most environmentally conscious industries in the world and has a big part to play in ensuring its customers are not only purchasing greener and recyclable products, but are also disposing of it properly or, are given an incentive to repurpose it.

As an industry, the onus is on to ensure we’re still doing our bit to curb what is once again becoming a huge issue.

  • Steve Lloyd is CEO at Catering24, a UK-based supplier of disposable catering supplies & packaging.

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