Looking to an ever-changing plastic free future

  • 04/07/2022
  • Written by Kate Warman

With Plastic Free July in full force this month, we thought there was no better opportunity to interview Ryan Quinn, our Category Specialist for NHS Supply Chain, Catering Consumables.

Ryan offers us his vision for the future, and an insight into the personal motivations behind his passion for helping the NHS remove all avoidable Single-Use Plastics (SUP) in catering.

Removing all avoidable SUP in catering is a huge task. Where do you start?

A lot of work has started already. Legislation has to be taken into consideration and governs what we do. Being in the public eye, as the NHS is, there is an element of pressure to be ahead of the curve when it comes to such legislation, and it starts with talking to each other.

Working with trusts to lead the charge can sometimes be a double-edged sword. We have to provide the right products for the customers, while ensuring we balance this with the newly established and innovative products, which are in the infancy of their product life cycle.

If you look at plastic cutlery for example, you can review the history of the market to assure the product supply and identify trends to forecast market activity. We don’t, however, have this in a newly established market, so we essentially have to start again to ensure that we have the resilience and assurance of supply.

There is considerable pressure to introduce changes, which is a huge task, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Talk us through what you are doing in the background that nobody sees?

I am continuously monitoring product and supply chain innovations, looking for opportunities to work with suppliers, and working to position myself as an open book for customers to approach with challenges, suggestions, and ideas for me to learn from.

To ensure we are ready for what is ahead I always keep an eye on the legislation. Where I can, I try to forecast the needs for the future to ensure we are ready for any changes to come.  

Monitoring the rest of the catering consumables and equipment supply chain occupies my time; ensuring product information is correct and product availability is as expected.

What are your biggest challenges in removing avoidable Single-Use Plastics?

I hate to be ‘that person’, but it’s the obvious – the cost of products. As these items are newly established we hope to get the volume and usage in these products over time, to bring the prices down to match that of the SUP predecessors. Thankfully, we are already seeing this happen in some areas with product costs already coming down. Suppliers have also offered cost reductions since day one on some of the core products, which is really positive.

Finding the right products for customers and the management of developing and growing supply chains are also huge factors in this activity. It is, as it often is, a time and commitment issue. Once suppliers can see the economies of scale we can go out and buy that product. We manage this by making sure we employ the right procurement strategies to get the best value for the customers.

A personal challenge I face, and I imagine many others do too, is which direction to take, knowing where to go next and which route we take to get there. We always look to our customers to inform our decisions, however sometimes the advising customers have differing opinions. We take everything into account and try to make the right decision to suit all.

What do you mean when you say remove all ‘avoidable’ Single-Use Plastics?

It is highly unlikely we will ever get to an entirely plastic-free catering supply chain. Currently there are still requirements for some plastic products based on clinical or Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) needs. For example, some vulnerable patients or patients with mobility concerns require a bendy straw in order to drink. At the moment it is not possible to have a bendy paper straw, so for now we still provide the unavoidable SUP product to meet this clinical need.

We use the word ‘avoidable’ to reassure trusts that we aren’t going to get rid of everything without consultation and due-diligence. We still aim to push ourselves to remove as much as is viable, and what is deemed to be unavoidable today, might not be the case tomorrow.

We will continually reassess and work closely with suppliers to identify innovations.

What is happening with the European Union (EU) directive*?

We are constantly keeping an eye on legislation, and with the EU exit we naturally shift our focus to UK legislation in relation to product bans and restrictions.

The EU directive might not directly affect us anymore, but the latest Defra consultation on this subject closed in February 2022 and we are awaiting the outcome of that consultation for a view on the scope and implementation of this legislation in the UK.

*The EU directive was set to ban the use of avoidable Single-Use Plastics in catering and hospitality. The planned activity was expected to take place over three yearly phases, starting in April 2020.  

Why is this project important to you on a personal level?

My children! This is a piece of work that has been ongoing for almost three years.

And to quote Robert Baden-Powell, I ultimately want “to leave the world a better place than I found it”.

How are suppliers in the market working with you to support this activity?

All of our framework suppliers have been supportive in the direction we are taking. It is so important that they have the same vision and intent as us.

What do you see the future of catering consumables looking like?

It’s funny you ask that, because it’s very easy to illustrate and we’re almost there already. The change is happening all around us, and as procurement professionals we keep talking about the future, but we are already seeing a snapshot of how it is going to look.

If you think back, just two years ago you wouldn’t have looked twice at being given a plastic fork or straw. But now there is a shift across every industry it is rightly becoming out of the norm to see plastic. I think this will continue and the NHS is already working hard to move towards this too.

There are obvious additional challenges for the NHS, but even with them many trusts have almost gone as far as they can already. I think there is plenty of innovation yet to come, and although we have work to do on waste streams, we have plenty of space and opportunity to keep developing. 

When do you hope to have achieved your vision by?

This is an ever-changing environment. It feels like it will forever be moving and the goalpost of what we want to achieve will continually develop. There will always be something to work on. But we have made a great start by achieving and exceeding our initial target of removing 50 tonnes of plastic in catering during 2021 – 2022.

Earlier you said “we always look to our customers to inform our decisions”. How do customers get involved?

Reach out and talk to me. I am an open book, I need to know your ideas, concerns or questions and I am happy to listen. As an organisation we want to hear as many voices as we possibly can. So, no matter the subject, you can message us at

If you are looking to find sustainable alternatives you can find a full list of the products we can offer in the Single-Use Plastic Alternatives Brochure.

Lastly, and probably most profoundly, what do you want your legacy to be?

I would like to be seen as somebody who actively sought to make change instead of sitting around waiting to be told what to do.

We hope you enjoyed this article. If you are inspired don’t forget to use #sustainabilitymatters on social media to join the conversation for the whole month of July!

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