Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Dry January? Veganuary perchance? Or what about a zero-plastic year? Victor Hill considers how the major supermarkets are responding to the challenge of cutting down on meat and plastic.
Vegetarian present – vegan future?
I admit it: I’m a carnivore. Like most of my fellow countrymen I love a good steak and relish a great British roast dinner. But I have been cutting down on meat of late and trying to build in several meat-free days each week.
This is partly for health reasons – like many people of my vintage I’m watching my cholesterol; partly because I am concerned about the way in which animals are treated; and partly because I am concerned that increased meat-eating globally is harming the environment. In 2019 I intend to cut down further on meat – though not today (New Year’s Eve at time of writing). Like Saint Augustine: Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.
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Mind you, I’m not convinced that most of us could fully function on a vegetarian, still less a vegan, diet. I have heard that it is common for vegans to suffer from anaemia. I still think it is morally justified for human beings to eat meat if animals are reared and slaughtered humanely. But I am very uncomfortable with factory or “intensive” farming of animals. Therefore, meat should be considered a luxury – a special treat on two or three days of the week. This approach is now referred to by the ghastly neologism flexitarianism.
I also abhor the gangs of vegan bullies who have recently taken to mounting “protests” in the form of invading steak houses and ruining diners’ evenings. They are not animal rights warriors – they are puritanical ninnies who want to impose their views on others by threatening them. But then there are quite a few of those around in all walks of life these days.
There is no doubt, however, that there is a trend away from meat-eating. In December Cambridge Colleges signed up to a sustainable food policy that commits them to reducing the amount of meat on their menus, particularly lamb and beef which are supposedly worse for global warming. (Ruminants are flatulent: most of their emissions are methane which is a big no-no greenhouse gas.)
Starting this term, Magdalene College will serve no more than one portion of beef or lamb per week. In neighbouring Fitzwilliam College vegan and vegetarian options will be placed first in the servery (clever). At St. John’s College insects will be on the menu (yuk). Churchill College last year launched a Meat-Free Monday. (Strange, because Friday was the traditional Christian day of fasting and Cambridge is still officially Christian).
Students, apparently, are six times more likely to go vegan than their parents but not all students are happy. After all, they now pay good money for tuition and lodging fees and should expect to be treated like clients – not children.
This, you may say, is all very well, but the fact is that the number of ordinary Britons giving up meat has risen dramatically. There are an estimated seven million vegetarians in the UK. Of these, according to the Vegan Society (though I cannot vouch for these figures), there were 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2018 – up from 150,000 in 2006. Sales of vegan foods in the big supermarkets are soaring. Tesco (LON:TSCO) predicts that one in five hosts will have to cater for a vegan or vegetarian guest in 2019. As anyone who knows a vegan will tell you, this can be challenging.
Sainsbury’s (LON:SBRY) is offering vegan versions of standard favourites like smoked salmon made from konjac root (used traditionally in south east Asia) and chorizo sausage made mostly from mushroom. A new range branded Sophie’s Kitchen includes sizzling beefless strips and fishless fillets. Sainsbury’s has experienced an 85 percent increase in the number of customers searching for vegan products online. (A good example of where the online offer informs in-store stocks.) They recorded a 45 percent increase in the sale of plant-based products last year.
An incredible 300,000 Britons have signed up for Veganuary – the vegan equivalent of Dry January. Some of those people may decide to persist with a vegan diet beyond the end of this month, so we can suppose that the number of vegans will continue to increase.
If you believe, as I do, that the most humanely reared and least environmentally damaging meat comes from local suppliers, I note that some supermarkets are ahead of the curve. Aldi (private) stocks almost entirely British-reared meat, as does Waitrose (John Lewis Group). Marks & Spencer (LON:MKS) offers a tracking system whereby consumers can trace all meat back to its origin. Processed meats (that’s sausages, pâté and salami of one kind or another) seem to come overwhelmingly from Europe. But, so the health warriors tell us, processed meats are the worst of all, with their high concentration of e-numbers, salt and additives such as nitrites…
The plastic nightmare
2018 was the year when we suddenly woke up to the terrible detrimental effect on the natural world of plastic packaging. This was partly due to Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. The series revealed that the oceans are full of the stuff and countless marine creatures are literally choking on it. If current trends continue there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish in terms of mass by 2050. As Sir David put it: The oceans are under threat now as never before in human history.
Some ecologists even rank the problem of plastic waste alongside global warming – though, in principle, it should be easier to resolve: stop using plastic; or recycle all plastic or at least incinerate it to make energy. The vast majority of plastic waste is not recycled in the UK, however, either because it cannot be recycled (cling-film, black plastic food trays) or because recycling systems are unequal to the task.
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Plastic waste that cannot be recycled mostly ends up in landfill sites where it breaks down only very slowly, emitting large quantities of CO2 in the process. Alternatively, it can be made someone else’s problem by shipping it abroad. Hitherto, the UK shipped huge quantities of plastic waste to China; but at the end of 2017 China announced that it would no longer be importing foreign waste. As a result, Malaysia now has the dubious honour of being the country where much of the UK’s non-recycled plastic waste ends up.
One positive political development last year was that Environment Secretary Michael Gove MP pledged to make Britain a world leader in reducing, reusing and recycling plastic waste. A DEFRA report last year proposed the idea that the polluter must pay at least the cost of recycling the materials they use. So manufacturers and retailers will be incentivised to use less packaging and to use materials that can be more easily recycled.
Because fish are eating plastic weare eating plastic when we eat fish. The long-term consequences of our ingesting plastic are not yet known. Almost all of the food we buy in supermarkets is wrapped in plastic. The average Briton brings home 38 pieces of plastic packaging every week in their supermarket shopping, less than half of which is recycled. So in a real sense we are eating not just the food we buy but the plastic with which it is packaged as well.
Most plastic in the oceans gets there because people – especially in developing countries – use major rivers to dispose of their garbage. Thus billions of plastic bottles and bags are thrown into the Amazon, the Niger, the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges and the Yangtze every year from where they are swept out to sea. It is tempting for us to be complacent: at least we don’t behave like that! But I challenge readers to take a walk along the Thames Path down river from central London at low tide – and to see the abundant plastic waste along the shoreline. It’s very depressing.
A shift to more recycling is good news for waste management companies like Viridor, a subsidiary of Pennon Group (LON:PNN). Since 2014 its plant in Rochester, Kent has been recycling waste collected by councils from across the UK. Each year it collects and processes about 85,000 tons of high-grade plastic which is broken down into flakes and pellets and then sold on to packaging manufacturers to produce – yes, more plastic bottles…
Remember that supermarket milk bottles are made of opaque HDPE which typically comes with no dyes or additives, whereas most soft drinks bottles are made with PET which makes them shinier and which is much more difficult to recycle. Another reason to give up soft drinks.
Pennon’s shares were down overall in 2018 but they outperformed the FTSE-100 as a whole. Certainly, the public perception of plastic recycling as a social good will give the company greater prominence. Brexit may turn out to be an opportunity in so far as Mr Gove’s plan means that Britain will take back control of its garbage!
Amongst the UK supermarkets, thus far, Iceland (private) which specialises in frozen food has been the most ambitious in this area vowing to eliminate all plastic packaging from its own-label products within five years[i]. Other supermarkets will have taken note.
Britain has been slow in eliminating plastic shopping bags. The devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh were well ahead of Westminster in charging for single-use plastic bags. There is currently a proposal to raise the minimum charge for a plastic bag from 5 pence to 10 pence in England. Most of us have got used to the need to take along a fibre bag-for-life when we go shopping. In my view, there is simply no excuse for single-use plastic bags at all.
Think globally – act locally
That old green slogan is actually a good mantra for investors. The best investment advice you can get is not from brokers’ reports but by using your eyes and ears in daily life. Observe your own buying behaviour and that of your friends – and other people in the checkout queue. Two of my New Year’s resolutions – eat less meat and use less plastic – are probably shared by many of my readers, so we are hopefully on-trend.
This year I’ll have some things to say about why recycling technology, like climate change itself, offers investors great opportunities. Let’s make 2019 green – and hopefully make a nice return too.