How Do We Address the Challenges Posed by Plastic at our Summer Festivals?

Phoebe Calcutt, Small Beer Brew Co’s head of CSR, discusses the challenges faced.

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Beer is the third most popular drink in the world, after water and tea, but as an industry using water, reliant on agriculture, and produced predominantly using non-renewable energy sources, it faces an exponential brew of social, environmental and market challenges. Here at Small Beer Brew Co we have built sustainability and social responsibility into our business model and structure because we want to get it right. I want to talk this month about a challenge we’ve recently faced with our choice of vessel for the upcoming festival season.

As brewers of great tasting beer, the drinking experience comes first - it has to be hard and cold and it has to be see-through. Unsurprisingly, glass fits the bill aesthetically and sustainably because of its re-washability, easy recycling and non toxicity when burnt or left in landfill. The problem is that festival and event glass policies get in our way and we don’t think we can use glass for samplings either. (Unless we use tiny novelty shot glasses which yes, we have investigated.) Non plastic lined paper cups would be a great option but don’t work re. opacity.

We all know single use plastic is the pits, so let's rule that out.

I've been looking into the use of PLA (Polylactic Acid) plastic which is plant-based (corn starch), ‘biodegradable’ and is marketed as an ‘compostable’ green solution. However, this bioplastic does not decompose in regular compost and has to be taken to commercial industrial composting sites which have very critically unique decomposing conditions, but are, unfortunately, hard to come by. Frustratingly, the energy used for the heat in these industrial composting sites and the carbon price of a different lorry taking the cups expends more energy than a regular recycling plant and lorry.

Biodegradable plastic can't go in landfill and can't go in recycling either.

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There aren't separate bins for these bioplastics so they are often put in the recycling. This is problematic because it can contaminate regular plastic recycling, rendering it useless. Alternatively, it gets put in landfill. As the cup is labelled biodegradable, this is done with the best intentions, however as landfill sites will not meet the degrading conditions necessary, the cups will stay in landfills indefinitely just like regular plastics. The plastic itself, aesthetically and practically, is actually very volatile and even things like a hot marquee at a festival could cause parts to soften and deform. Granted the more companies that use PLA or go compostable, the more pressure and demand there will be for more industrial composting sites, which would make the material easier to recycle and will quicken the process. A fantastic thing about PLA is that if incinerated or when finally decomposed it doesn't emit toxic fumes (methane) unlike plastic. This is a step in the right direction but i’m not convinced this is enough.

Companies need to be labelling their products clearly and to be more honest about what happens to these compostable cups when binned.

RPET plastic is recycled PET (Polyethylene terephthalate), one of the most desired plastic in recycling plants. Although it is still plastic (it has virgin fibres in it to make it sturdy) it is reused so you are not only helping decrease the amount of landfill plastic waste but also reducing resource extraction. By raising awareness and demand for recycled products, we are helping to solidify recycling programs and recycled goods as valuable with pieces in the production process and value chain. You can re-wash and reuse RPET which is key for festivals with deposit schemes. We believe this is a better option for us now because society doesn’t have the infrastructure to get rid of ‘biodegradable’ plastic.

Beer tastes better in glass and using it would mean we wouldn’t need to source plastic, so for now we will try and convince event holders to permit glass and in the places where we can’t, we will use RPET. We will do this for as long as it takes to drive the industry to somewhere better which might be PLA/compostable cups or it might be something better. We will constantly be scouring waiting for someone to develop whatever this wonder material is!

For the future, we will be actively rounding up the industry and suppliers to either eradicate glass policies, or to make green alternatives like PLA, really work.

Hopefully something similar to the much needed Latte Levy* will be introduced, and passed, causing a demand for more creative untaxed products. *The 25p tax on single use coffee cups (the tax used for improving the price of recycling them, a price not paid for by the producer, and a complete ban if recycling doesn't improve.) We need to lobby for better legislation on throw away cups and single use plastic in general to make way for creative solutions.I want to recommend the Making Waves Guide by The Raw Foundation. Inspirational work and fascinating to read their abundance of research.

Have you experienced similar challenges? Can you think of any better solutions to our problem? We’d love to hear from you.

Phoebe & the team at Small Beer Brew Co