July is always the month when living plastic-free is thrust into the spotlight. While we welcome this annual celebration of plastic-free living, this year there are some bigger problems we need to bring to the table.
The global pandemic has, unsurprisingly, had an impact on some of the progress made away from single-use plastic. We need to ensure this issue doesn’t fall off the agenda, causing an even bigger environmental problem down the line. Public safety must remain a priority, but it doesn’t have to come at the cost of our planet.
While it’s brilliant to see cafés and bars welcoming back customers, the tidal wave of PPE and single-use takeaway packaging that has come with their reopening has been alarming.
The plastics industry has been working hard to convince us that single-use disposable plastic is safer than reusables. The good news is, over 115 health experts from 18 countries have released a public statement to reassure both businesses and consumers that reusable containers do not increase the chance of virus transmission and are safe to use, providing basic hygiene is in place. They emphasise that disposable products are NOT inherently safer than reusables and that reusable systems can be utilised safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene.
At a time when the bottom has dropped out of the recycling market and virgin plastic is cheaper than ever, we have to keep momentum on tackling single-use plastic and transitioning towards reuse systems.
A success in reverse?
Since the pandemic hit the UK, we’ve seen government bans on single-use plastic delayed or reversed and high street chains and coffee shops have banned the use of reusable coffee cups. Given that we use an estimated 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups in the UK, the impact of these snap decisions could be catastrophic for our environment.
Research since lockdown started has shown that 55% of people have now become ‘more concerned’ about the environment as a result of Covid-19 and 63% are planning to decrease their personal consumption of plastic packaging. The public demand is there, we just need to get businesses to listen.
Putting reusables back on the menu
At City to Sea, we’ve been working hard to get reusables back on the menu. As part of our award-winning Refill campaign, we are already working with around 30,000 UK businesses, so our focus is on ensuring they have the support and guidance they need to safely start accepting reusables – starting with hot drinks.
In May we launched Contactless Coffee and have since been successful in getting hundreds of cafés to start accepting reusable cups – including Costa – and are now working on guidance for water refills and for takeaway alcoholic and soft drinks as pubs and bars start to reopen.
The World Health Organization and other health authorities continue to emphasise that washing our hands and sanitising surfaces are still the best things we can be doing to stay safe. So, while coronavirus doesn’t care whether it’s single-use or reusable, our planet sure does.
A multi-industry working group to rebalance reusables
City to Sea has launched Repeat, a reuse taskforce of industry experts, scientists, businesses and retailers, to tackle the issue. It is designed to ensure businesses are clear on the guidance around accepting reusables safely and have a roadmap to reintroducing them.
Members include the Sustainable Restaurant Association, Compass Group UK & Ireland, Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Zero Waste Scotland, the Foodservice Packaging Association, CIEH, Business in the Community and Dr Ben Locwin, an international advisor for Covid-19. Businesses are welcome to join.
This Plastic Free July, we’re calling on governments, businesses, industry and the public to avoid undoing the incredible progress we’ve made in tackling single-use plastic, and get reusables back on the menu.
If we do not take urgent and proper action now, we’ll be feeling the long-term effects of the pandemic on our planet for years to come. We need to rethink, refuse and reduce, and reuse. Now is the time to consider what we want the new normal to look like. Because our planet is not disposable.