By Hal Shaw
Over the past few months, the devastating impact of single use plastic (SUP) on the environment has come sharply into focus in the UK. Shocking images of turtles strangled and deformed by plastic; whales washed up on shore after their stomachs have become clogged full of plastic; and The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an ‘island’ of plastic three times the size of France, have been featured by National Geographic and Blue Planet II, and shared widely on social media. These appalling stories have, in turn, been picked up by traditional media outlets and led to a renewed outcry for all of us to rethink our plastic use.
Of course, SUP has been on the government’s radar for years. In the UK, England was the last nation to introduce a levy for plastic bags in 2015. Since its introduction, “the number of bags used has gone down by more than 80% in England. This means that more than nine billion fewer plastic bags have been used.”1 This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction but many countries have already banned the use of plastic bags, which are only part of a wider SUP problem that includes takeaway coffee cups, water bottles and plastic straws. Taking a step further, the European Commission has proposed bans on, “cotton buds and plastic straws and putting the burden of cleaning up waste on manufacturers in an effort to reduce marine litter.”2
Whilst governments can be slow and cumbersome to introduce changes in legislation, corporations are able to pre-empt these changes in the law and combat their SUP footprint quickly and efficiently. Businesses are starting to listen and respond to their consumers’ concerns. This trend has been driven by environmentally conscious millennials, with their growing purchasing and political power, demanding that companies to go further and work faster to combat SUP. The 2015 Nielsen study found that 72% of millennials are willing to pay more for, “products and services that come from companies who are committed to positive social and environmental impact.”3 As millennials become the leaders of tomorrow, both in business and politics, this trend is likely to continue to grow.
The 2015 Nielsen study found that 72% of millennials are willing to pay more for “products and services that come from companies who are committed to positive social and environmental impact.”
Companies that lead the way in tackling SUP with new and innovative steps are being lauded by the press and can gain unique selling opportunities when compared to their rivals. One such company leading the way is Morrisons, the fourth largest supermarket chain in the UK. Morrisons announced in May 2018 that it would permit customers to bring in their own containers to purchase fresh fish and meat. This is one of a number of initiatives being implemented by the supermarket chain which has already, “axed plastic straws, cotton buds and single-use carrier bags and announced plans for water fountains.”4
With coffee, the nozzle of the machine touches the liquid, and potentially the cup, and the risk of cross-contamination is high. To avoid this, some chains were serving the coffee into a disposable cup before pouring it into the customer’s cup and then throwing the cup away, which clearly defeats the purpose of using a keep-cup.
New processes, new risks
Progress of this nature will always come with a new set of risks that need to be mitigated. The most obvious being the cleanliness of customers’ containers and the risk of microbial contamination such as e-coli or listeria mono. Aon has already discussed the potential repercussions of someone using a contaminated container with our insurer partners. One of the key questions raised was: how quickly could our clients ascertain whether it was the container, or the counter from which the product has been sold, that has caused the contamination? If it was the latter, this could lead to the store (or part of it) being forced to closed and a significant business interruption loss, as well as reputational ramifications.
Cross contamination is a serious issue and we would advise that there are strict protocols in place for the serving of meat and fish. Ideally the utensils should not touch customers’ containers and they should be thoroughly cleaned between uses. Alternatively, could the product be served into paper or another recyclable product and then transferred to the container?
Coffee shops in the UK have recently faced a similar situation when chains such as Starbucks and Prêt a Manger started to allow customers to bring in their own reusable cups. With coffee, the nozzle of the machine touches the liquid, and potentially the cup, and the risk of cross-contamination is high. To avoid this, some chains were serving the coffee into a disposable cup before pouring it into the customer’s cup and then throwing the cup away, which clearly defeats the purpose of using a keep-cup.
In response to the coffee cup situation, Public Health England warned of the dangers of not properly washing a reusable cup, especially as dairy and sugar provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. The Food Standards Agency said that coffee shops could reserve the right to refuse to serve customers asking for a drink to be poured into a dirty re-usable cup. This latter point should be considered by Morrisons and others before serving meat and fish. We are not, however, aware of any guidance, at present, from any of the industry bodies (BRC, Campden BRI, FSA, FDF) around this specific issue but this will be likely to change in due course.
In conclusion it seems that the move towards reusable containers, be it for food or drink, is here to stay. From an environmental standpoint this can only be celebrated, however we can’t hide from the fact that reusable plastics do present new and challenging hygiene and contamination risks to manage for corporations and independent retailers alike. With consumers becoming more and more environmentally conscious, companies will have to ask themselves if they can afford not to offer alternatives to SUP.
Email: Hal Shaw
About the author: Hal is an Associate Director at Aon, in the Product Recall & Contamination team, based in London. He began his career at Aon in 2012, as a claims advocate, handling all lines of Marine claims. He has been seconded to various Aon offices worldwide, including New York City, Miami and Singapore. Hal has presented to clients from around the world about their insurance policies & claims and has a proven track record of negotiating coverage for clients.
*disclaimer – the opinions in this article are that of the author and do not necessary reflect Aon’s opinions.