Pre-pandemic, in 2019, a survey by environmental charity Hubbub found that almost 11 billion items of packaging waste are produced each year from buying lunch on-the-go. At the time, the trend for takeaway lunches was growing with the majority (64%) of respondents saying that they bought lunch out more frequently than they did five years ago.

This rise of people buying lunch also coincided with the “Blue Planet” effect, and although the volume of throw-away packaging was on the rise, so was momentum for the need to phase them out. From the rise in popularity of reusable cups, to legislation passed in 2019 banning the use of items such as plastic straws and stirrers, the tide was turning.

Fast-forward to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and single-use plastics and containers started to seem necessary again to avoid infection, and legislation was delayed to allow businesses to focus on the impact of the pandemic. The date for the ban on plastic straws was pushed back (it was supposed to enter into force in April 2020 and was finally implemented in October 2020) and many coffee chains, such as Starbucks, introduced a temporary ban on reusable cups.

Indeed, research by not-for-profit organisation City to Sea found that 80% of organisations it surveyed had not made any progress on pledges to reduce single-use plastics from their front-of-house operations during 2020. The survey focussed on the top 20 (by sales turnover) high street food-to-go businesses, which included household names such as Starbucks, Burger King and Itsu. Although Covid-19 undoubtedly led to significant challenges for the industry, from the perspective of working towards zero waste, the results did not make for positive reading. For example, 60% of organisations did not have public-facing policies or commitments to reduce consumption of single-use items (the first action required under the legally-binding waste hierarchy), and policies often favoured changing the materials that single-use items were made from, rather than minimising their use in the first instance.

However, the end of the hiatus appears to be in sight, and work is underway to reinvigorate the phase out of single-use plastics and other disposable packaging once again. The Government has committed to align UK legislation with the requirements of the European Union’s Single Use Plastics Directive, and schemes to increase reusables are starting to be trialled. Here, we look at some of the ideas currently being aired.

Costa trials blockchain

In September 2021, Costa launched a new blockchain-enabled reusable cup loan scheme dubbed BURT (Borrow, Use, Reuse, and Take back). The trial is taking place in 14 of its stores in Glasgow and is set to last 6 months.

Blockchain is an online digital ledger that allows people to make transactions. Most famously, it is used for bitcoin, but it has also been trialled for sustainability initiatives such as keeping a record of items through a supply chain.

For the trial, customers will make a one-off payment of £5 and sign up for a digital account. The technology allows customers to scan reusable cups borrowed from stores using a QR code, linking the cup to the customer’s account and creating a digital ledger. Once used, the cups can then be returned to participating stores, where they will be de-linked from the account, deep-cleaned and put back into circulation.

Research by Hubbub found that almost 40% of people do not use a reusable cup every time they buy a hot drink due to them not remembering them every time they go out, and the scheme is designed to help solve this problem. Throughout the trial, customer feedback is being encouraged, and if successful will be rolled out across the UK.

Starbucks offering a new way to discount reusables

Starbucks, too, are due to trial a new scheme to encourage the use of reusable cups — although Starbucks hoped to incentivise uptake using the “carrot” of discounts. Called Cup-Share, customers pay a small fee for a cup that is reusable up to 30 times, but then receive a 25–30 pence discount every time the cup is reused. The cup can then be returned to the store and the fee is returned to the customer in the form of a tender.

The scheme will be launched alongside the current discount that is provided to customers using reusable cups. To discourage the use of disposable cups, the “stick” of a 5 pence surcharge on disposable paper cups is also set to be reintroduced.

The surcharge on disposable cups was first introduced in 2018, and the initial trial found that although reusable cup use increased by 150%, unfortunately a large majority of customers were still using disposable cups. Some have argued that 5 pence is not a high enough surcharge with research from Cardiff University suggesting that any surcharge needs to be as high as 25 pence to have a significant impact.

McDonalds — use and return

In a similar vein, McDonalds has partnered with Terracycle’s Loop platform to allow customers at six trial sites in Northampton to purchase drinks in reusable cups for a £1 deposit as well as a 20 pence discount.

The deposit is refunded when the cup is returned to participating stores or kiosks. If returned to stores, the refund can be in the form of cash, a voucher or a new reusable cup. If returned to a Loop kiosk, customers will receive a voucher or their money back via the Loop app. Once collected, the cups are sent to Loop’s cleaning facility where they are washed and sanitised.

Just Eat — takeaway and then take back

To give customers a choice between traditional takeaway containers and reusable ones, food delivery firm Just Eat has partnered with CLUBZERO to give customers the option when buying a takeaway. Initially the three-month trial will take place with six of Just Eat’s partner outlets in London, after which the results will be assessed before considering the options to roll the service out across the country.

Under the trial, customers will be given the option to pick traditional or reusable containers when placing an order on the website or app. Customers will then be asked to arrange a collection of their used packaging in the app, or drop it off at a local CLUBZERO facility.

Contactless coffee from City to Sea

For cafes wanting to reintroduce reusable cups, City to Sea has partnered with the Sustainable Restaurant Association, Business in the Community and Zero Waste Scotland to provide best practice guidance on how to safely provide “contactless coffee” using a customer’s reusable cup.

The not-for-profit has also published best practice advice on how to safely accept water bottles for refill, as well as advice on the best options for takeaway containers.

Summary

The Covid-19 pandemic emphasised that we still have a long way to go with phasing out single-use items, especially plastics. However, although the uptake in reusables slowed during the pandemic, efforts are now underway to reinvigorate the momentum that was gaining pace before Covid-19 hit.

Now that more is understood about the virus, safe ways of working have been established for organisations looking to reintroduce reusable containers, and the largest businesses are starting to trial new schemes to increase uptake, using technologies such as blockchain, incentives through discounts, as well as solutions that simply require items to be returned.