• Freya

M&S ditches plastic cutlery

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

This blog was written as a guest blog for Zero Waste Life, originally published here.

Retail giant M&S have the last month been phasing out plastic cutlery across its more than 600 food outlets in the UK. In its place, it will give out a wooden alternative. This is a step towards its objective of becoming a zero waste corporation by 2025.

Reading about this made me wonder about the costs associated with this excellent initiative. Wooden cutlery must surely be way pricier than cheap plastic utensils? Disappointingly, a phone call to M&S’s press office didn’t leave me any wiser, so I made a quick guesstimate to shed some light over it.

The average prices of five wholesalers indicate that, contrary to my presumption, wooden cutlery is actually cheaper than plastic, i.e. the heavy duty plastic that the companies in question are using. 6.59% cheaper, my research suggests.

  • M&S hands out approximately 75 million pieces of cutlery a year;

  • The average price of 1000 pieces (knife, fork or spoon) is £29.76 for heavy duty plastic;

  • The average price of 1000 pieces (knife, fork or spoon) is £27.86 for wooden;

  • Let's assume a 30% discount (due to high volume and negotiating power).

Plastic: 75,000,000*£0.02976=£2,232,000-30%= £1562400.00

Wood: 75,000,000*£0.02786=£2,089,500-30%= £1462650.00

Difference: £99,750.00

That’s a triple bottom line: Savings? 100k. Waste? Zero. Brand equity? £Priceless.

Fantastic. If wooden is a cheaper material, should not all businesses want to follow suit? Consumer demand and governmental pressure are increasingly pushing corporations to improve on sustainability, so this should be a no-brainer. The problem is, it turns out, that there is still a discrepancy between consumer values and -behaviour. This summer, Pret a Manger tried the exact same thing. However, the scheme was quickly terminated due to a massive consumer backlash. Customers were claiming that the spoon was too shallow and thus not suitable to eat yoghurt or soup. Others complained about the wooden taste and feel in their mouth, while some even claimed that wood cutlery was less sustainable than plastic because of the timber required. Pret is currently developing improved compostable cutlery, planning on reaching its over 500 outlets in the new year, and are in the meanwhile hoping that moving the cutlery behind the till will reduce usage.

Fortunately, this did not scare M&S off. In fact, the aforementioned press officer was not even familiar with the Pret-case. Let’s hope M&S’s customers are more merciful. If we keep taking one step forward and two steps back, we will miss the boat and drown in plastic.

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