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The global pandemic has unsurprisingly increased the amount of coffee bought by consumers, confined as they were to the home. When the second lockdown in England was announced on 5 November 2020, AO.com reported an increase in the sale of coffee machines of 412%.
However, with the growth of coffee drinking comes a growth in the amount of coffee packaging, most of which is made from single-use plastic. If the UK is to meet its goals to reduce plastic consumption, this must change, but a switch to other types of plastic won’t make a difference alone. The UK’s infrastructure for handling recyclable and compostable plastics needs to change with it, an evolution that boutique coffee brand Cafés Novell is pushing for.
Cut plastic waste
For some years, there has been a steady drive for us all to consume less plastic. The Government estimates that the UK uses five million tonnes of plastic each year, nearly half of which is packaging. Although household waste recycling rates have risen in the UK from around 11% in 2000/2001 to about 45% in 2018, there is a long way to go.
Businesses that signed up to The UK Plastics Pact, led by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in conjunction with the government and various NGOs, have committed to eliminate “problematic” or single-use plastics altogether. Progress is being made. In the year 2018/2019, Pact members reduced the number of items classed as problematic by 40%. The amount of recycled plastic used to create packaging continues to increase, as does the amount of packaging that can be recycled.
The coffee sector is putting pressure on manufacturers to move to recyclable and compostable plastics. The British Coffee Association (BCA) has published a goal to push the industry to achieve zero-waste packaging by 2025.
Recyclable plastic is one route for coffee brands to go down, though recycling takes significant resources to follow through. Another is compostable plastic. This is by nature “the cleanest type of packaging available”, says Simon Roberts, Commercial Director of Roberts Mart, a family-owned manufacturer of compostable packaging based in Leeds that has grown to a turnover of £40 million.
“It’s from nature to nature, effectively,” Roberts says. “As it is primarily derived from plant-based materials, through composting it can return to the earth in a closed-loop system.”
Currently, compostable packaging accounts for only 0.5% of consumer plastic packaging in the UK, according to WRAP. The market is growing, Roberts reports. Roberts Mart has achieved four major European compostable packaging launches, one of which is with Cafés Novell. Producing the packaging required to ensure coffee has a long enough shelf-life has taken much finessing.
Victoria Garside, Operations Manager of Cafés Novell UK says: “Our ‘No Waste’ range of compostable products, which includes both packets and capsules, offers a real alternative to the waste currently generated by aluminium coffee capsules and plastic barrier coffee packs. Cafés Novell has been pioneering the use of this packaging across Europe for some time and are now delivering it across the UK from our base in Yorkshire.”
In general, the adoption of compostable plastics is being held back in the UK for two reasons: a lack of consumer awareness about what to do with compostable packaging and a lack of infrastructure across the UK for handling such packaging.
Helping consumers to know what to do with compostable packaging boils down to getting the labelling right. To be classed as compostable, the packaging must be certified by TUV Austria with the OK compost label, designated to be compostable at home or industrially. This badge must be displayed clearly on all labelling.
If a consumer doesn’t understand where a pack will compost, they will put it in landfill or recycling. It will either contaminate the recycling system or go into landfill, where it will biodegrade eventually but will release methane.”
The second, major challenge is infrastructure. WRAP reports that 160 councils across the UK covering 11.7 million households currently do not provide food waste collections. In 2020, the government committed to rolling out food waste collection across the country by 2023 as part of its Environmental Bill, but many local authorities have said that this will create significant infrastructure challenges. Until facilities are improved for composting, however, compostable packaging will not reach its potential.
Countries across Europe are much further ahead in handling both recyclable and compostable plastics. Garside describes how Cafés Novell’s Spanish parent company has rolled out widescale facilities across the country for industrial packaging, while Italy’s trade association for compostable packaging Assobioplastiche is making real headway.
Pressure is growing
Happily, the pressure on all elements of supply chains to reduce single-use plastics is only going to increase. In summer 2021, the plastic tax will come into force in the UK, a new tax that applies to packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic. Supermarkets and manufacturers will face increased pressure to find alternatives that fall into four categories: reusable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable.
The BCA is also calling for more pressure to be put on local authorities to increase the UK’s infrastructure to handle compostable plastics. Its report Bean to Bean and Beyond states: “As new packaging innovations and compostable solutions become more readily available, it is important to keep in touch with and drive innovation in other related industries such as the waste collection and recycling sector. Waste and collection services in the UK now face an innovation challenge in being able to cope with the increasing volume and different types of compostable waste at scale.”
Consumers repeatedly demonstrate a willingness to support recyclable or compostable packaging and many make brand choices based on sustainability. The pressure is on the UK’s local authorities to find a way to handle this waste, as there will be no turning back.
By Nicola Bulley (Scarborough group)