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Posted: 27 Feb, 2018

In December 2017, our Consumer Markets team issued several predictions for the retail, dining and travel sectors in 2018. 

We predicted a 'Blue Planet 2' effect which would result in businesses cutting the use of plastics in packaging and serving equipment following the shocking footage of marine life afflicted by non-degradable pollution on the popular BBC show.

In the first month of 2018, we’ve already heard from many large restaurant groups and brands that have plans to reduce or eliminate plastic from their supply chain. Household names such as Diageo, JD Wetherspoons and MacDonalds have all released statements about their plastic reduction programmes. 

In fact, the first month of 2018 has seen a lot of coverage in this area. A national campaign by the Evening Standard publicised the need for drastic action, and the #passonplastic hashtag has gained a large following among social users and celebrities globally.

There are some simple solutions and 'quick wins' for certain types of plastic waste. Switching to paper straws, bamboo cutlery and fabric bags offer sustainable and biodegradable alternatives to plastic, and as adoption and demand grows, costs will continue to fall. 

But there are greater challenges ahead. Plastic waste that passes through UK households exceeded 1.5 million tonnes last year, the majority of which resulted from food packaging, which ended up in landfill, where it will remain for thousands of years. 

Plastic is synonymous with food packaging, from supermarket aisles, to fast food outlets, and wholesale distribution. Almost all the food we buy comes to us in some form of plastic pot, wrapper, bottle or packet.

The elimination of plastic from food and beverage items is however an exciting opportunity for food technology entrepreneurs to bring new solutions to market that provide the same qualities of plastic, such as extending shelf lives and maintaining food quality, without the downsides of pollution and waste. 

Companies such as London Bio Packaging have been working to reduce our reliance on plastic by bringing sustainable alternative materials to market, but more action is needed for these products to be adopted widely by big business. The UK’s growing food tech industry, spearheaded by YFood, is well placed to capitalise on the public sentiment for plastic free food packaging.

There’s no denying social media’s impact on our society. The overwhelming response to Blue Planet II, together with the actions of several major retailers, shows the power that consumers have in shaping the businesses we interact with. Companies now frequently respond to changes in consumer sentiment with the same diligence and speed that they do for new legal and regulatory requirements. An ongoing challenge for all companies today is not just to be present on social media, but to meaningfully and authentically shift and respond to consumer attitudes and behaviour. 

Ultimately, customers will vote with their wallets. Iceland is the first supermarket to publicly state that they will end plastic packaging in their stores by 2023, and other retailers will surely follow, whether through social pressure or lost custom. 

Our recent report ‘Who are today’s consumers?’ highlighted that 27% of millennials are willing to pay more than a 10% premium for Fairtrade and ethical produce. This group of consumers are well touted for being far more concerned and diligent when it comes to sustainability and environmentally friendly produce and products, as well as being vocal across social media channels. There is too much at stake for brands to ignore such a strong movement. 

So, in 2018, the 'Blue Planet' effect will extend far beyond the use of plastics in retail and restaurants. It has the potential to kick start a change in the way that businesses engage with their customers and build their brands. The turtles will be grateful too.

Written by: Saxon Moseley, RSM Manager

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