How can schools prepare for the plastic tax?

Sponsored: allmanhall analyses what schools can be doing as we head towards the introduction of a new plastic tax in 2022

The global pandemic created many new opportunities in the way food was produced and supplied across the whole food sector, including catering in schools which saw an heightened take up in click and collect and ‘grab and go’ options. A rise in takeaway food’s popularity, coupled with ‘hygienic’ or Covid compliant options such as disposables, has resulted in an increase in demand for plastic food packaging at a time when consumers – not least pupils – are crying out for a reduction in single-use plastic.

As independent food procurement specialists, supporting over 70 clients in the education sector, allmanhall have been analysing this dichotomy and what schools can be doing as we head towards the introduction of a new plastic tax in 2022.

Particular attention has been drawn to the use of single-use plastic items, such as cutlery, plates and cups. Approximately 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.25 billion items of cutlery, mostly plastic, are used annually, but just 10% are recycled upon disposal. The Government has started to take actions that will encourage a reduction in use.

With a ban on single-use plastic stirrers and straws already in place, a new 12-week public consultation begun earlier in 2021, which is including the review of single-use plastic cutlery, plates and cups, and could lead to these items being completely banned in England. Scotland has already announced such a ban, effective from June 2022. The recently passed Government’s Environment Bill could also be used to introduce new charges on single-use items.

The introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax in April 2022 is already intended to encourage the sourcing of environmentally friendly alternatives to single-use plastics in packaging, all with the aim of reducing waste and encouraging recycling. With packaging being defined as plastic if it contains more plastic by weight than any other material, the tax will see £200 per metric tonne being applied to plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled plastic. This is on goods both manufactured in and imported into the UK.

As we enter 2022, with just months to go before this tax is introduced, it is essential that those in catering and foodservice are active in finding an effective solution to reduce their plastic wastage. Ahead of the new tax, the development of more sustainable packaging solutions has become high to both manufacturers and retailers, with many trialling new product development and moving towards packaging that can be more effectively recycled.

As a certified carbon-negative manufacturer, Real Wrap Company use sandwich and wrap boxes that are all plastic free. Replacing the usual plastic film with cellulose sourced from trees, this means that the whole box is easily recycled and can be put in the mixed or card recycling points. Following suit, retailer Aldi are also introducing a trial of fully recyclable sandwich packaging.

The other advantage of sandwich options is the adherence to Natasha’s Law labelling legislation, live as of October 2021, but that is a topic for another article and indeed we have written many about it!

The challenges

However, actions to reduce plastic usage whilst ensuring that food packaging still meets the standards required comes with numerous challenges. As the British Meat Industry explains, plastic is used in packaging as it is light, durable and has “superior barrier qualities” which have “improved food safety, extended shelf life and reduced food waste significantly over recent decades”.

This is particularly true of plastic packaging used for meat which is a “high-moisture, perishable product”. Concerns have been raised that the pressure to increase the recycled content in packaging to more than 30% could result in alternative materials being used that reduce food shelf life and consequently cause higher food wastage.

Although it is relatively easy to add recycled components to rigid plastics such as trays, it is more difficult to add it to flexibles and films. As a food contact material, packaging is highly regulated, and any new developments need approval – a process that takes time.

With the plastic tax on the horizon, and the health of our planet at the forefront of everyone’s minds, alternative solutions need to be found that will also meet the threshold of 30% recycled plastic. PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is usually used for drinks bottles and chilled or ambient products such as salads or takeaway foods due to its high barrier properties.

However, it does fall within scope of the plastic tax. A suitable replacement might be RPET (recycled polyethylene tetraphyte), which would meet the plastic content threshold, or bagasse. Made from pulped plant mass this is compostable and can be recycled through paper waste streams. However, whilst flexible films also fall within scope of the tax, those that are in direct contact with food are more difficult to substitute as recycled content is not permitted for food grade films and bags.

How can school catering teams prepare?

As a starting point, school catering teams can prepare now by assessing what they use and how. It is key to look at the full cycle of the plastics and alternatives they use, from manufacturing and supply through to disposing and recycling.

With RPET having the most commonly used waste stream in this country, schools should look at their own recycling solutions for disposable products and how these may be improved.

 Read more like this from allmanhall

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