6 ways foodservice businesses can tackle plastics

The Sustainable Restaurant Association has released a guide on the best alternatives for the most common single-use plastics. 

27 June 2018

It can be a matter of minutes on the lips, but take years to break down when it comes to disposable straws, bottles and coffee cups.

That’s why the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has created a guide to help foodservice businesses find the best alternatives to single-use plastics.

It’s not only on the shop floor that plastics are impacting; it’s a big deal in the kitchen too. When chef Skye Gyngell of Spring realised they had used enough cling film to stretch from their central London location to Istanbul – a total of 3,600km since opening – she sought more sustainable material before deciding they didn’t need to use film at all. Gyngell is supporting the SRA’s campaign.

Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the SRA, said plastics play a crucial role in the day-to-day operation of most foodservice businesses, and right now the sector is facing an unprecedented level of awareness and pressure over their environmental impact.

“There is a huge tide of willingness to tackle the pressing issue of single-use plastic. Many foodservice businesses have already taken the first step – acknowledging they have a plastic problem. A number have already acted decisively to ditch some items like straws. There are few in the industry though who feel fully confident about the available alternatives for their full range of disposables,” he said.

“We’ve created a toolkit to help the industry start to come to terms with its addiction to single-use plastic. It’s designed to help businesses better understand the realities of what they are using, what it’s made of and how they can actually dispose of it.”

The UK’s fast-moving grab-and-go culture sees an estimated 7bn plastic bottles and 2.5bn disposable cups sold each year with only a small fraction of these being recycled. Estimates suggest consumers have been using around 8bn plastic straws. But consumers want to see action on plastics.

Here are the key points from the SRA’s guide on alternative options for the most widely used plastic items plaguing foodservice.

1. Cling film

Regular cling film is derived from crude oil and almost always ends up in landfills.

Instead, beeswax wrap, which is made from cotton and beeswax, could be used. It’s resusable, rewashable and scrunchable, and quickly seals food to maintain freshness. If washed, the cotton can also be sent off for textile recycling.

Reusable storage containers are also a good idea, including refillable condiment bottles for customers that eat in.

2. Takeaway packaging

With delivery predicted for mega growth over the next 20 years, this could become a big headache for foodservice businesses if they don’t tackle it now.

Takeaway packaging can be made from a range of materials from paper and plastic, while PET is derived from crude oil and RPET is made from recycled PET.

Also be aware that PET made in the UK has a considerably lower carbon footprint than cheap, imported PET made elsewhere in the world, so ask suppliers about the provenance of their packaging material.

The problem is when the containers are contaminated with food they won’t be recycled and will often be sent to landfill or for incineration.

The SRA encourages educating consumers about the benefits of rinsing and recycling containers and  introducing reusable containers like tiffin tins.

3. Cutlery and chopsticks

Ditch the plastic and go with wooden or bamboo as most composting facilities will accept them. Although the bamboo is produced in China, which raises carbon footprint issues, the plant is incredibly fast growing.

A word of warning though: wooden or bamboo cutlery and chopsticks can be sprayed with a resin, which will reduce its degradability, so look for Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

There is also cutlery and chopsticks made from a material called PLA, which is renewable organic matter such as corn starch or vegetable fat, but composters are generally unable to distinguish these from PET currently.

Also, be sure to ask customers if they actually need the cutlery.

4. Straws

This has been all over the news as companies ditch straws or offer alternatives. Everyone from fast-food giant McDonald’s to All Bar One, Wetherspoon and Pizza Express have jumped on the bandwagon, while supermarkets Waitrose, Iceland and Morrisons are also phasing out plastic straws.

Like eating utensils, they can also be made from PET, RPET or PLA. (Yes, that’s a lot of abbreviations.)

Many businesses are already embracing paper straws, but the SRA cautions that owners should always check for FSC certification. The added benefit of paper straws is that even in general waste they are biodegradable.

Also, review whether drinks actually need straws and train staff to give out straws only when necessary.

5. Bottles

Sorry, more abbreviations. Bottles are commonly made from PET, RPET or aluminium, all widely recycled, but highly recycled RPET can be lower in quality or include discolouration. However, it is still better than virgin PET.

Recycling aluminium requires 5% of the energy required to manufacture virgin aluminium.

Good alternatives can be glass, which some operators are already investing in. Another is carton (Tetra Pak), which is made with layers of cardboard, aluminium and plastic. Around 92% of UK local authorities offer collection. However, there are downsides to this material. Most consumers will throw it in general waste, and Tetra Pak can’t be made from recycled materials.

There are also some easy solutions. Offer customers tap water, provide staff with a resusable bottle and explore installing a water filtration system.

6. Coffee cups

Shocking statistics with these: on average they are used for 20 minutes but will stay on Earth for 200 years.

For card and plastic-lined cups, the SRA recommends installing a cup-only recycling bin for the public to use and communicating how and where they are recycled. It’s good PR, after all.

The SRA also recommends adding a levy for cups that can’t be recycled and offering a discount to incentivise customers to bring a resusable cup. This is already happening at Pret a Manger, Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Paul and Greggs, among others.

Coffee cups made from foamed polystyrene are economically unviable and should be avoided at all costs.

More information can be found on the SRA website.

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