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Fast-food companies must take responsibility for packaging

High street, fast-food packaging is on many people’s minds following the re-opening of hospitality outlets and drive-thrus across New Zealand under Alert Level 3.

While many have eagerly satisfied their takeaway fix after weeks of home-cooked meals, not everyone is impressed by scenes of over-flowing bins of brown paper bags, plastic-lined paper cups, plastic cups, straws, lids, boxes and cutlery.

Representatives of the Takeaway Throwaways campaign are encouraging those concerned about fast-food packaging to sign the Takeaway Throwaways petition. The petition calls on the New Zealand Government to replace single-use disposable serviceware - which includes fast-food packaging - with reusable serviceware instead.

“The coronavirus lockdown has shone a light on the problem of fast-food rubbish by allowing us to experience five solid weeks without it strewn through gutters, roadsides and other outdoor areas” says Takeaway Throwaways Co-Founder, Laura Cope.

“However, the damage fast-food packaging causes to our environment is not new. This packaging has been tarnishing New Zealand’s landscape and filling up our landfills for decades. The problem required urgent action before the virus, and still requires urgent action now”, she says.

Takeaway Throwaways also wants to shift public attention towards the fast-food operators themselves.

“We’d like to know how high street fast-food operators intend to deal with the waste their products cause”, says Cope.

“For some time, campaigns have focused on individual litterers; we want to bring some balance to the picture and look directly at the source of this packaging. Of course, if we have rubbish, we should put it in the bin. But, do we really sleep better knowing that even in our best efforts to be Tidy Kiwis, this stuff goes to landfill?”

Takeaway Throwaways Co-Founder, Liam Prince agrees, noting that too much airtime goes to anti-littering messaging and plastic alternatives. Yet, neither address the core issues of single-use.

“Single-use serviceware made of plastic—cutlery, cups, straws—is a dangerous source of plastic pollution. But not all fast-food packaging is plastic and not all of it becomes litter. The problems of single-use waste are bigger than this”, he says.

“Paper and cardboard packaging breaks down anaerobically in landfill, producing methane. And all single-use items, regardless of where they end up or what they’re made of, take energy and resources to produce for just one use. That’s energy and resources we could save if industry embraced reusables instead.

“We have to tackle the core of the problem and find alternatives to single-use serviceware. And the primary responsibility lies with the businesses who profit from the products that make the waste, not us”, says Prince.

“Most of the high-street fast-food operators won’t accept BYO cups and containers. So, apart from boycotting fast-food entirely, what options do the public have? Fast-food operators need to step up to deal with their mess.”

Takeaway Throwaways policy spokesperson, Hannah Blumhardt, notes that if incorporating customers’ BYO cups and containers into high street fast-food workflows is logistically tricky, operators should start thinking creatively.

One option is reusable serviceware loaned on a deposit – a model increasingly heralded as the way of the future by overseas experts, including the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Such systems would operate most efficiently and cost effectively if major fast-food outlets worked together to standardise their reusable packaging.

“This might sound like a bother, but sooner or later fast-food operators will be forced to have these conversations. Whether that’s because Government listens to our petition or decides to go ahead with the proposal to declare single-use plastics a “priority product” under the Waste Minimisation Act”, says Blumhardt.

“Our message to these operators is that the tide is turning on throwaway products. Once the rush of Alert Level 3 is over, consider the public’s growing distaste for single-use items; front-foot the likelihood of future government action in this area; get together, sit down, and nut out a reusable solution that you can all use.”

In the meantime, the Government could take small steps forward, such as charging fees on businesses using disposable serviceware to fund clean-up costs (such as the proposed UK “Latte Levy”), and mandate the use of reusable serviceware for dine-in settings so that fast food operators won’t be able to use disposables for dine-in customers (as in Berkeley, California).

“Fast food operators may argue that single-use serviceware is needed right now to manage coronavirus. It was companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks who first rejected BYO cups in the early days of the virus”, says Cope.

“However, we know now that reusables can be used safely even in the context of this virus. The Government has clarified that reusable takeaway serviceware is permitted under Alert Level 3 and beyond.

“The reality is that fast food’s persistent use of single-use packaging has nothing to do with coronavirus. Even in the good times these companies have done far too little to explore and develop less wasteful packaging. They’re out of step with the times, but now is the perfect moment, as we evaluate our impact upon each other and our world, to step forward and step up.”

Sign the Takeaway Throwaways petition here: https://www.toko.org.nz/petitions/takeaway-throwaways-for-food-and-drink-and-mandate-reusable-alternatives-instead

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