Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, living on Mars, or perhaps under water, you’re probably felt the Attenborough effect. Whether or not you watched in horror as the doyen of wildlife documentaries shamed us all over our plastic addiction, you’ll almost certainly be aware of the fallout from Blue Planet.

While plastic remains a fantastic invention with a myriad of uses, no one can be in any doubt about the scourge of single-use plastic and in particular the damage it causes once discarded. When describing the effects of indulgent food, people used to say a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips. With plastic straws, cups and bottles we could adapt those bon mots to: a moment on the lips, a lifetime in the sea.  Of the estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced to date, an estimated 80% is languishing in landfill or littering the oceans or some other part of the natural environment.

Earth Hour promise

Restaurants, pubs and bars of all kinds, including the mushrooming takeaway industry, has had to sit up and smell the coffee cups. Public interest in this issue has never been higher. When WWF recently asked the public to make an Earth Hour promise for the planet, 60,000 rose to the challenge. Ditching plastic cutlery was the most popular.

Whether it’s straws, stirrers, plastic-lined cups, cutlery, clingfilm, takeaway boxes, or bottles, restaurateurs and chefs have been working overtime to find alternatives and we’ve been endeavouring to help the industry make the right choices.

Here’s a brief summary of some of the initiatives underway in SRA member businesses that should help make it less likely that you’ll see turtles with straws up their nostrils and birds pecking at plastic bags.

The last straw

Oakman Inns, was in the vanguard of the anti-plastic straw movement, removing one million from its 24 Home Counties pubs. Wetherspoons, Carluccio’s, Wagamama, Pizza Hut, Yo Sushi, Hawksmoor and Rosa’s Thai, are just some of the big names that followed suit, in the process removing tens of millions of single-use plastic items. While removing plastic is undoubtedly the right thing to do, and it’s important to make us as customers think about why and when we really need a straw, it’s not a wholly simple solution. By simply moving the straws behind the counter, a number of large chains drastically reduced the number of straws they were getting through. Businesses are working with producers of more sustainable alternatives as well as their waste contractors to ensure that they can and will be recycled.

The Prime Minister has now announced the Government’s intention to ban plastic straws and at the same time called time on plastic stirrers, following our collaboration with Clear Public Space on the recent #StirCrazy campaign.

Give a fork about plastic

LEON is among a number of operators switching all its cutlery to bioplastic. That leads neatly into the wider subject of takeaway. Globally almost 22 million people ordered more than 170m takeaways using Just Eat last year. With each of those orders there are the containers used to carry the food, the napkins, the cutlery, straws and sauce sachets all habitually bundled into the delivery bag. In 2017 the takeaway platform sold 1m plastic packaging products to its 28,000 restaurants. That’s now a thing of the past as its partner shop has removed all plastic items. Now it’s turning its attention to us, the consumer and helping us be a part of the positive change.

Following a survey of customers which found that three quarters of us say we don’t need the cutlery, straws and sauce sachets included with every order, they’re running an opt-out trial. And in a further forward-looking move have signed up to work with the SRA for second year, during which time we’ll be helping some trial sites go plastic free. What we learn from working with these businesses we’ll share with the whole network. Among the difficult challenges we’ll be wrestling with is how to find an affordable, practical alternative to a plastic container to transport a laksa up a hill on the back of a bike. Maybe the tiffin tins used by Bristol based Thali Café could be a part of the solution.

The cups they are a changing

It took Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s 2016 War on Waste series to alert the nation to the perils of plastic film in the 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups we consume annually. It transpired that only a tiny fraction of these cups were actually being recycled. This year, LEON has started using a plastic free cup and in a really major development, Costa announced this month that it had teamed up with major waste firms and the country’s biggest paper mills on a plan to recycle 500m cups a year – that’s a fifth of all the cups we’re using annually. Coupled with Waitrose and Boston Tea Party moving to a no disposable cup regime, any talk of a latte levy maybe just excess froth.

Water, water everywhere…Rather than sell you a plastic bottle of water, more than 5,000 cafes and restaurants have joined a movement called Refill – doing just that – refilling your reusable bottle.

Huge challenges remain – particularly now that China is no longer accepting any of our plastic for recycling. No one has yet found a large-scale alternative to clingfilm, although some of our independent restaurant members are working on ways round it – like Skye Gyngell’s restaurant Spring where the kitchen team is using beeswax wrapping – removing an astonishing 3,600km of cling film – enough to stretch from London to Istanbul with plenty left over.

We’ll continue to support restaurants to find ways of using less single use plastic. Meanwhile, particularly when eating food you haven’t prepared yourself, think about what you can do to wean yourself off it.