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Opinion: The food service industry must handle Covid-19 hygiene risks with plastic-free packaging

Tommy McLoughlin of Butterfly Cup outlines why the fight to get rid of plastic must continue in the midst of the Covid-19 changes.

IRELAND IS BACK in business in so many ways, and the Covid-19 question we now face is whether as a society we go back to old habits or if attitudes have permanently changed, and if they have, what are the consequences?

Plastic is a very big part of this. We all know that it is everywhere from the oceans to our homes and that its production, and a failure to dispose of it properly, does enormous damage to our climate and environment.

Earlier in the Covid-19 shutdown, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the longevity of Covid-19. It reported that the virus can survive on plastic surfaces for up to three days.

The threat posed by plastic to our climate and environment was well known before the Covid-19 crisis. Climate change may have been pushed off the news agenda recently, but 2020 began with bushfires ravaging Australia. It was a disaster linked undeniably to global climate change by the University of Sydney.

Studies by University of Hawaii researchers have shown how plastic contributes to climate change. Greenhouse gases, methane and ethylene, are released from plastic waste under the influence of sunlight.

The scandal of plastic

The production of plastic amounts to about 5% of the world’s annual production of oil – a key contributor to global warming. Severe weather-related catastrophes like the Australian bush fires have consistently driven new behaviours aimed at slowing climate change and saving the environment.

Attitudes to plastic in the foodservice industry began to change rapidly in 2015 when
marine conservation biologist Christine Figgener posted a video on YouTube of her removal of a plastic straw from the nose of a distressed sea-turtle. It has been viewed over 40 million times.

Consumer pressure, driven in large part through social media, resulted in many leading brands quickly de-listing plastic straws. However, plastic lids and plastic-coated paper cups remain a huge environmental problem with more than 250 billion such cups produced each year.

As a producer of environmentally friendly packaging, I feel it is now my job to find non-plastic solutions to the issue of cross-contamination posed to our industry post-Covid-19.

My colleague Joe Lu invented the Butterfly Cup. We both have a background in food production and our initial objective was to eliminate the need for the plastic lid and straw. It was amidst the anger of the Figgener video that I noticed a distinct shift in attitudes.

Butterfly Cup was launched at the prestigious One Young World Summit in London late last year and was shortlisted in a worldwide competition, the NextGen Cup Challenge, organised by the world’s leading beverage retailers, to deliver the holy grail of a plastic-free and fully recyclable beverage cup.

Our cup is hygienic (no lid), plastic-free, recycles with ordinary paper and meets all the requirements of the EU Single Use Plastics Directive. We have been working on the project for almost eight years, but it now has established distribution networks and sales in 25 countries with customers across a wide spectrum including Burger King, HSBC Bank and Columbia University.

Change is happening

In my industry, the development and marketing of environmentally friendly food and drinks packaging, growing awareness of the level of sea pollution caused by plastic and more recent awareness of the scale of micro-plastic pollution, both on land and in our oceans, is driving change.

Use of plastics increased during Covid-19, particularly in the health sector. But according to Dr Fengwei Xie at the University of Warwick, while the pandemic is just temporary, plastic pollution will be long-lasting.

As some food service outlets re-open, Covid-19 has demonstrated people’s vulnerability to a previously unrecognised but very real threat to health from plastic which will change the way we eat and drink due to heightened consumer awareness of the risks of cross-contamination.

Unfortunately, the much-discussed second wave of Covid-19 is a constant worry. Consumer behaviour around food and drink is going to change, possibly forever. The ‘new normal’ is not merely a passing phase, but a long-term reality.

The manner in which plastic coffee cup lids and straws are stacked and handled, particularly at self-service outlets, is causing anxiety among consumers, and I believe those worries will intensify.

Plastic coffee cup lids are one of the most exposed and mishandled food service items. A study by the University of Arizona found up to 17% of plastic lids stacked in the self-service areas at coffee shops were contaminated by faecal matter.

Given what we now know about Covid-19, there will be fears about customers and staff coughing, sneezing, handling money, or worse, and then touching stacked plastic lids, or for a barista to hold their hand on top of a lid.

Often, customers take two or three plastic lids accidentally or go deliberately down the stack for a ‘clean’ lid and then put the rest back. Coffee shops, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, catering facilities and other food service outlets will face significant challenges and must adapt fast.

Already, far-sighted operators are working to introduce contactless coffee dispensing systems in self-service areas where cups are stored hygienically and dispensed individually to the customer who fills the cup without touching any buttons.

Plastic coated cups and plastic lids were a relatively unchanged staple for decades and are still dominant in the market, particularly in the cold drinks sector. Almost 100% of them are disposed of as either landfill or litter.

The move away from plastic-coated cups, plastic lids and straws has been gradual, but it will gain renewed pace now. Change will come rapidly, and it will be heavily influenced by social media highlighting the risk of cross-contamination through plastic.

But they are still market-dominant. Almost all fast food outlets continue to use plastics to serve cold drinks because it is cheaper than more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Regulation through taxes and bans on plastic will ultimately bring change. Big corporates will move away from plastics when the economic balance is altered by taxes and when plastic-free alternatives achieve a price advantage. The EU Single Use Plastics Directive is driving this change and will be implemented throughout Europe over the next 18-24 months.

Listen to the science

It’s clear that on the back of a global pandemic, science cannot be ignored. Plastic packaging will become a thing of the past, but fears around cross-contamination will remain. This will mark the demise of many items commonly used in the catering industry.

And, as people become conscious of the noticeable environmental benefits brought about by lockdown, consumer demand for renewable materials with a low carbon footprint will increase.

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This presents an opportunity for progressive outlets, but a real threat to those which are slow to adjust. Growth in sales and market share will be achieved by providers who act proactively, in a timely fashion.

Failure by operators to adapt will quickly impact sales and profitability. Early adopters will prosper, but those slow to change face an uncertain future.

As the intensity of the spread of Covid-19 declines, health and hygiene fears brought about by the pandemic are set to dovetail with environmental concerns over plastic packaging.

Though now more immediate than the issue of climate change, Covid-19 represents another reason to move away from plastic packaging in the food service industry.

Tommy McLoughlin is the founder and CEO of Butterfly Cup, an innovation-focused next-generation packaging solutions provider, which has pioneered a cup that is plastic-free, recycles with regular paperboard and does not require a plastic lid or straw.

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