• Adam Whittaker

The Plastic Population

It was with great interest that I recently attended a panel discussion regarding plastics and the food and beverage sector. Those gathered included contributors from Costa Coffee, McDonald’s, The University of Manchester, all chaired by Tony Naylor, freelance journalist for various publications including The Guardian and BBC Good Food. The audience consisted of hoteliers, Manchester based food outlets and other influencers from the City’s hospitality scene.

Opening, the chair outlined the issues facing the food and drink sector in addressing the increasingly disturbing phenomena of sustainability and the influence those assembled could have in improving the devastating scenes we have seen played across our increasingly fragile planet. Litter strewn beaches, ocean life swerving in and out of, or indeed consuming, our waste of all shapes and sizes. But fundamentally it comes back to one thing it seems – plastic.

Following Manchester’s Green Summit in March 2018, many operators in Manchester have signed a pledge to ensure the city is free of single use plastic by 2020, an initiative from The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burham. But what exactly does this mean for the everyday running of Manchester’s eateries?

Kicking off the contributions, Roger Khoryati, Managing Director of MCD Manchester Ltd, claimed that as a McDonalds’ franchisee of some 18 years, he felt that the group as a whole weren’t doing enough to showcase exactly what the company were doing, a claim echoed by Victoria Moorhouse from Costa Coffee.

McDonald’s proudly use only UK and Irish sourced meats, free range eggs, have served organic milk for over 10 years and endeavour to source as many products as locally as possible. Such rightly applauded measures are somewhat unknown to the wider public and may go some way to swaying opinion if only more people knew about them.

Roger currently operates 10 restaurants across Manchester and is rightly proud of the efforts he and McDonald’s go to in supporting sustainability. As a company, they are committed to making a difference through recycling (90% of McDonald’s packaging is recyclable, all of Roger’s outlets use a company in Liverpool to recycle their cooking oil into fuel), climate action and sustainable sourcing, whilst continuing to invest in staff education around the matters concerned. When it comes to food waste itself, you’ll find very little from any of the restaurants as, in the first instance, a complex and sophisticated ordering system that is based on historical data means precise amounts of stock are delivered. Secondly, food is now cooked to order rather than numerous amounts of burgers and nuggets sitting on a heated rack for an indeterminate amount of time.

Impressive listening and certainly pleasantly surprising. If only the mammoth marketing team behind the global giant told more of us about it, more of the time.

Costa Coffee

Similar sentiments were offered from Victoria Moorhouse. As the Head of Sustainability for the coffee giant, she is responsible for the development and delivery of Costa’s Force for Good programme and has a wide background including managing the Catering, Cleaning and Waste operation which helped deliver the most sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games ever in 2012.

The ever growing coffee drinking market has it’s inherent problems and as the trend continues, Costa are apparently doing everything they can to tackle the issues it raises. In amongst a plethora of impressive statistics, the fact that already 25% of the world’s coffee is sustainable was a striking statement. Her employers are endeavouring to implement significant change and play a key role in leading the way in beverage sustainability. They have pledged to recycle 500m cups a year but are naturally a little handicapped by the fact that many of their customers take their drinking vessel off site. Instead they attempt to explore other methods of environmental assistance, the collection of their grounds and cups are incorporated into the existing logistical framework without the need to employ separate ‘waste collection’ teams, and you can of course collect grounds from any outlet for use in your own garden.

Simplistic measures such as moving straws behind the counter rather than having them available customer side have reduced usage significantly, people not seemingly feeling the need to use them if they aren’t readily available – a ploy mirrored by Roger and his teams. There are practicalities that they aren’t able to surmount however.

Re-usable cups may have the right sentiment but their use is not applicable to all. Office workers are able to wash their receptacle regularly, whereas for others, that may not be the case, leading to cleanliness and hygiene issues that may be off putting to many. Victoria and her team are continually looking at ways to incentivise the scheme nevertheless.

Costa does consider itself geared up to tackling food waste even though this obviously isn’t as a significant part of their portfolio as coffee. They give to food banks, and continually look at working with charities to donate food when it is safe to do so.

Another key factor in the future of both businesses is the rise and rise of vegan and vegetarianism, something that both, but particularly Roger identify as a culture change. More and more vegetarian products are being sold although the traditional burger remains the strongest performer and more fish related fodder gets sold on a Friday. The menu will have to change as it always has – 25% of McDonald’s turnover is now constituted by breakfasts – a huge rise over the past few years. That need to adapt to customer needs will always be prevalent.

The determination of the corporates to address the situation is admirable even though some may deem it a marketing gimmick. It isn’t. Obviously to be seen as a market leader in sustainability and corporate responsibility is a key factor when consumers look to buy their next coffee or burger, but the sincerity behind the processes being implemented can only be applauded and welcomed.

For me, the substance and insight was lead at this particular forum by Liam Bergin. As Head of Catering at the University of Manchester, he oversees 6 catered halls of residence, 30 restaurants and retail units, wedding venues and conference facilities. The halls recently won an award for their sustainability programme and have a 3 star raring from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA).

Some of the facts and figures can, at times, be indigestible when it comes to waste and recycling, although some hold significant resonance. As Victoria highlighted earlier in the discussion, a third, yes a third of all food produced is wasted, some 10 million tons in the UK alone. Yet Liam effortlessly brought it down to the level appreciated by the gathered but by no means belittling the achievements of the giants on the platform.

Behaviour – it’s all about behaviour. His mantra continued throughout answer after answer, citing students confusion when facing an array of different recycling bins (similarly Roger states that 10% of his customers often put the rubbish in the wrong receptacle). And it just isn’t always as straight forward as it seems. Can someone supply a ridiculous amount of organic milk for campus? Yes they can, but it will have to come from a Darlington dairy. So do you forsake the miles it takes to transport or do you use a more local dairy whose milk may not be organic but are on your doorstep? Where is the green message?

What measures is Manchester University taking? Giving a guaranteed £40k a year to a local vegetable company, guarantees their survival but also supports ethically produced food. But the key is to hit the issue at source. Those eating the food. First of all – don’t eat so much. Simple. Your eyes being bigger than your stomach remains a key contributor to food waste. Portion control is vital – smaller plates have been introduced to the restaurants and the use of trays has been abolished. Piled high platters have been replaced by students juggling with whatever food they can manage to carry – the thought being that if they want any more food they can always go back to the counter and consequently food waste has been reduced by a third. Students only take what they need.

When putting services out to tender, Liam and his sustainability team insist that there is some stipulation with regard to recycling and if no solution is apparent, then potential suppliers have to find one. This gives smaller companies with a little more flexibility , a better chance of being the preferred supplier.

But it was the basic and straight forward attitude that struck a chord and was refreshing to hear. Do we need to use a straw to drink being just one of Liam’s pleas? Isn’t it just possible to take the lid off your McDonald’s milkshake and drink it from the cup. It’s a wonderful thing that there will soon be paper straws available with the Manchester bee adorning them yet they will probably be shipped over from China so it’s simply replacing one environmental issue with another surely? Direct yet deliciously honest.

The frustration continued, goodwill only lasts so long, customers are still price sensitive, the meat free evening meal in halls is now sold off the back of sustainability not animal rights, but even though it is welcomed, it comes at a financial cost to him and therefore the consumer. The days of the big meal are in decline, his students are eating less but more often yet the education and communication around recycling is what is flawed. As host Tony said, it’s about changing the ‘binfrastructure’. A little bit of food thrown in with the paper recycling contaminates that batch to the point of unusability for the recycler. For some charities, it makes no financial sense to collect a small amount of waste food but working in collaboration with other outlets this may be overcome, only if the charity complies to the standards required. For the University, that isn’t an issue. They have homeless living practically on their doorstep and therefore health and safety also doesn’t play such a part.

Ironically, Liam outlined the outrage that he would be greeted with if he were to curtail breakfast service in halls. However, he isn’t able to guarantee how many students will surface from their pits each day to quaff a sausage but has to prepare anyway. Similarly, conferences that he hosts – so many delegates are booked in yet not all make an appearance guaranteeing a certain amount of food waste as he still has to accommodate the numbers no matter what. Ironically, such a point was borne out by the number of unused delegate badges at this forum and the consequential amount of food remaining on the hospitality table, an embarrassment keen to be avoided by the host as he urged those that had shown up to tuck in! Portion control it was agreed was key – but you can’t anticipate no shows and reduced appetites.

Ultimately the argument came back not just to the use of cups but plastic packaging as a whole. Its complete dismissal is futile. Packaging helps prevent food waste as food can be kept for longer before being binned, but it is the disposal or recycling of that packaging that is key. Fundamentally we need plastic in some form or another.

The continued mention of ‘behaviour’ and ‘communication’ underlined a key point for me. Plastic and its use is just the tip of a waste iceberg. The essence and issues behind the pledge and the cost to the planet as a whole go much much deeper. Obesity, particularly in children, remains a key health issue here and in other countries, which is driven by eating too much combined with too little exercise. Simple. Kids piling high their trays in the school canteen, eating more than they need to and often throwing the odd mouthful away is as much, if not more of an issue than a cup being put in the wrong recycling unit. Stop people eating so much and being so greedy and we address one of the biggest crises facing the health of the country ever and help somewhat towards averting a global environmental catastrophe.

Many thanks to CityCo and the Manchester Food and Beverage Network for staging such an event and to the panel for their enlightenment. Hopefully, those in attendance can help to get the message out there.