This blog post was originally posted on the Belu website.

At Monday’s SRA event ‘Unwrapping Plastics: Use and Misuse in Hospitality’, it would appear we did exactly that.  We unwrapped some of the real issues and the challenges that businesses face, from information overload to or misleading information in circulation when it comes to plastics, alternative formats and recycling.

There are two huge issues at the root of our single use plastic problem: plastics that can’t be recycled, and plastics that could be but aren’t currently. The fact that members of the UK Hospitality Industry are getting together and talking about plastics is great news.  Whilst at times the topic was referenced as ‘stressful’, the fact we’re talking surely means that together, our pace of learning and therefore our impact should be faster than if we each try to make progress alone?

The journey to becoming plastic responsible

Andrew Stephens, Chief Executive of The SRA opened the event telling the room: “With so many types and alternatives, plastic can be extremely confusing. What's more, it can be essential. It’s saved lives in hospitals and enabled technology we use in daily life. In restaurants it has played a valuable role in improving food safety and reducing food waste. We’re not setting out to vilify all plastic. We're here to help you navigate the journey to becoming plastic responsible”.

You could almost hear a relieved exhale in the room.  I know that I was thinking that at last, we’re going to move into the ‘practical/ what change can we make’ space. And indeed, we got off to an inspirational start with Skye Gyngell founder and Head Chef at Spring London how she “Just took the decision” to remove all plastics, “It did cost us more, but I just did it”. With a clear message that it can be possible to overcome your Chief Financial Officer’s challenge to increased costs associated with sustainable change.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

If there’s one thing our experience at Belu water has shown us, it’s that the ability or agreement to pay more for a more sustainable product isn’t the same for all. During my session at the event   I encouraged those in the room to make sure they measure and report progress to capture the impact of plastic initiatives they introduce, in both carbon and financial terms and ensure transparency.  Following the first rule of all things environmental ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’.

Risking unintended consequences

With plastics you can’t remove, investigate if there’s a better alternative. This wasn’t the first session I’ve attended lately which got into the space of ‘unintended consequences’, with businesses thinking they’ve selected a greener alternative to plastic only for it not to be able to be recycled or composted in the right way by their local waste management service, and therefore ending up in landfill.

The risks of changing to what might look like greener alternatives on the surface, stood out for me as one of the most complex areas for the industry to share advice on. There was a clear message to the room to engage with experts before making decisions, and that restaurants should start with the realities of what their local waste service providers can do for them when it comes to recycling. Education about the realities of what happens with our recycling in reality ‘beyond the recycling bin’ is crucial. Overall, in the room I heard resounding agreement to plastics aren’t the problem, it’s how we use them. The fact that there’s a lack of recycling infrastructure in the UK that’s fit for purpose means we face a huge challenge. It’s important to avoid knee-jerk reactions to avoid unintended consequences.

"Be careful that the cure isn't worse than disease" Steve Packer, Pizza Hut Restaurants, speaking at the event

The challenge of balancing commercials with doing the right thing

Businesses need to accept that the creation of positive change can require financial investment. For example, for some restaurants seeking to remove bottled water, in these tough economic times they often face the challenge of balancing commercials with doing the right thing environmentally.

Our experience at Belu is that when we talk with restaurants about our inspiring filtration model presenting cost savings with a free filtration system provided in return for the restaurant adding £1 voluntary donations to each bill for our charity partner WaterAid, quite often those conversations may come to an end once their Financial Director calculates the impact of loss of revenue from bottled water sales.

That said, by following the first rule of the waste hierarchy, to reduce, you can also cut costs. For example, Pizza Hut Restaurants moved straws behind the counter and made them an 'on request' item. They are now using 90% less straws. So the move to more expensive paper straws has been less of a burden.

A toolkit to help the hospitality industry ‘unwrap plastic’

I certainly learnt something new from each session including some more facts and data to add to my long list, however the statistic that 98% of all plastic that ends up the ocean comes from outside of Europe and the USA is still the one that blows me away.

I’m certain that the session along with the support of the toolkit produced by The SRA in collaboration with Belu will provide hospitality industry with some new confidence around the plastics challenge and the journey to becoming ‘plastic responsible’. We want to support the foodservice industry to make good decisions instead of knee-jerk reactions by asking the right questions, gaining reliable knowledge and using tools to help take action. The guide recommends a simple five-step plan as the essential starting point for any restaurant serious about reducing their reliance on single-use plastic.  We’ve also co-produced a specific Water Toolkit to help SRA members on a journey to a more sustainable water service.

I’ll close on my highlight quote from the session, from the tell it like it is approach of Mike Hanson, Head of Sustainable Business at Baxter Storey, when speaking about the issue of litter and the fact that 85% of plastic in the sea comes off the land via rivers; for me it sums up one of the most pertinent points of the session beautifully:

"Plastic is a smart product but not smart enough to throw itself out of a car window"

For more information about Belu and its ethical bottled water, click here.