In the Spring of last year, The Reading Sustainability Centre (TRSC) was involved in a campaign to raise awareness about the impact of single-use plastics. This is also when this issue was starting to gain a lot of traction in the media, no doubt due to the success of Blue Planet II. We wanted to see how Reading’s food establishments were doing on the plastic waste front, and what more could be done. We enlisted the help of three University students who were on a placement with TRSC, to help us survey the local businesses. Over the course of 3 weeks, we gathered data from 35 food establishments, of which ½ were restaurants, ¼ were cafes, and the rest were a mixture of pubs and takeaways.
The questionnaire was designed to get businesses thinking about how much single-use plastic they use, and whether there are measures they can take to reduce it. There were 4 sections to the survey; straws, coffee cups, refilling water and other single-use plastics. All except one establishment said they wanted to reduce their amount of single-use plastic, their main reservations however, were the cost this could incur and businesses that were part of a chain would need the approval from higher up to make any changes.
When it came to straw use, 58% of businesses used plastic straws, which was actually a lower percentage than expected. The remaining 42% used paper, compostable or simply didn’t offer them. The vast majority of places kept their straws behind the counter, rather than having them on display. This is a good step as it prevents customers picking up straws out of habit and forces them to ask for a straw if one is not included in their drink, which most people probably wouldn’t bother to do. One third of businesses already had a request-only policy in place, and another 50% would consider having one. Cocktails were a common culprit for being served with a straw, alongside milkshakes and takeaway drinks. Most establishments were willing to switch to paper straws, but few, particularly independent stores, would consider compostable ones due to their price. There is a reservation amongst businesses to stop providing straws altogether as there could be backlash from discrimination claims, since some individuals do require straws. However, it could be argued that the responsibility should fall on the customer and not the establishment to provide suitable straws.
Since ½ of the businesses surveyed were restaurants, the questions relating to coffee cups were not relevant to them, and thus there were fewer responses to that section. Nonetheless, of the businesses that did sell coffee in disposable cups, 60% said their cups were recyclable, and 60% of them said this was obvious on the packaging. However, saying something is recyclable and actually recycling the item are two different things, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the recycling rates for coffee cups is considerably lower than 60%. Considering that cafes are the main sellers of coffee, of the 8 cafes surveyed, only one provided recycling facilities for the customers. However, 90% of all the businesses surveyed claimed that they (at least sometimes) would recycle items left on the table by customers. Food establishments in the Oracle said that their recycling is sorted out by the Oracle, who have a good reputation for this, and therefore they didn’t deem it necessary to provide recycling bins themselves. Given that an ever-increasing number of cafes are offering discounts to customers who bring a reusable coffee cup with them, it seems like a wise investment to purchase a reusable cup. Many can be purchased for around £8, and for someone who buys on average 2 coffees a week, the cup can pay for itself in only 3 months (if the discount is 25p – which it is in Costa, at Pret it’s 50p!). Of the businesses we surveyed, only 5 establishments said they currently offered a discount to customers bringing a reusable cup, but a further 11 places said they’d be willing to, so it’s definitely a trend that’s on the rise.
Disposable water bottles are one of the many single-use plastic products to come under fire in recent years. Many people are making the valid argument – similarly to coffee cups – that it makes economic and environmental sense to purchase one bottle and have it refilled. A remarkable 90% of the businesses surveyed said they were willing to refill someone’s water bottle, even if that person wasn’t purchasing anything. If members of the public could get into the habit of bringing a reusable water bottle with them and getting it refilled, this could have a major impact on reducing plastic waste. When it came to asking businesses whether they’d be willing to display a sign advertising that they refilled water bottles, the results were quite mixed (23% yes, 47% maybe, 30% no). Therefore, it may be down to the customer (or passer-by) to be proactive in asking a food establishment for a water refill even when there’s no explicit sign saying they’ll do this, as chances are they probably will.
When we asked the businesses whether they’d be willing to make any changes going forward, many said they would, or at least that they would speak to management about it. Some said they’d transfer to paper straws, others said they’d improve their recycling methods, others offered to start selling reusable cups or display ‘refill water’ signs. It’s great to see that local businesses are starting to make positive changes, but it’s also important to remember the influence that consumers have on initiating and encouraging sustainable change. Whether it be refusing a straw or investing in a reusable cup or water bottle, every action is a step in the right direction.