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How to reduce the environmental impact of your disposables?

Disposables are fundamentally not consistent with a sustainable circular economy. Re-use is always the best option, but it isn’t always logistically or safely possible yet.

When considering your disposables it’s worth starting with an audit of what you currently use and asking yourself whether you really need to use disposables at all or whether you can find alternative options. This doesn’t have to be complex. Simply installing three bins – home compostable, recyclable, landfill – and watching what goes in each can give you a good understanding of where you can make the biggest impact at least within your own premises. However, the Foodservice Packaging Institute estimates that in a typical restaurant 70% of packaging leaves the premises in takeaways, which means you won’t necessarily see the waste you’re producing and you have no control over what your guests do with it either.

In this post we will focus on what to consider when choosing disposable packaging for takeaways, but it’s worth first looking at a few good examples of re-use models across several areas of disposables often found in hospitality beyond just packaging:

Takeaway packaging: Caulibox (if you’re not in a major city, you may have to team up with other restaurants to make this happen in your area)

Blue roll: Who gives a crap? (better known for their recycled loo roll, which I doubt is likely to become re-usable any time soon!)

Plastic gloves: Autoglove (a UV-C light sterilisation unit for cleaning plastic gloves between tasks)

If you can’t make a re-use model work yet, here are some considerations to help you reduce the environmental impact of the takeaway packaging you choose.

  • how is the material made?
  • what is the smallest possible size you could work with?
  • do you need to have separate sauce pots or could you work with separated sections inside one box?
  • do you need transparent lids or can you work with opaque ones?
  • does the packaging naturally communicate its sustainability to customers or does this need to be clearly communicated somewhere? (e.g. natural cardboard look compared to a plastic-looking compostable)
  • if you can’t find suitable more eco-friendly packaging to suit your needs, can you adapt what you’re doing to suit the available options?

Bar far the biggest consideration is how the material is made. Most suppliers will have a range of these options:

More environmentally-friendly materials to standard plastic takeaway packaging

Sustainably sourced paper & card

This is typically made from either recycled paper or from sustainably managed forests. According to Enviropack this means “a resource which can be sustained at current levels if current consumption trend continues. As conventional plastics are derived from oil, they are not sustainable. Paper and board derived from properly managed timber is a sustainable resource.” Of course, the current consumption of sustainable packaging materials is rapidly increasing, so it will be important that these forests are being replenished and expanded in line with demand.

A good mark to look out for is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), which is a certification body that ensures forests are being managed in a way that “preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers, while ensuring it sustains economic viability.” Biological diversity is an often overlooked factor when planting trees for commercial use or even carbon offsetting. It can be tempting to create a monocrop of trees most useful for making packaging and lose out entirely on the typical diversity of a natural forest, which has a knock on effect for the biodiversity of the whole ecosystem and the resilience of the forest in the long-term.

Wherever possible recycled paper is preferable as that puts no further pressure on any natural resource, but sustainably sourced paper and card are also good options and the maintenance of the forest will also provide benefit in terms of carbon absorption. As an option, this is probably the one most consumers are familiar with and will instantly understand as being a sustainable option.

Bagasse

Bagasse is made from a by-product of the sugarcane industry, the dry fibrous residue remaining after sugarcane has been pressed for juice. This is then pressed and shaped into containers for packaging using a high-heat, high-pressure process. This has to be my favourite material for takeaway packaging because it:

  • is made from a by-product of sugarcane, which means it isn’t taking up any space that could otherwise be used to grow crops for food.
  • is made from a crop that is much faster to grow than trees for wood and can be harvested annually.
  • requires only 1500kg bagasse to produce 1000kg of pulp compared to 5000kg wood to produce the same amount of pulp for paper.
  • it beats even cardboard in the speed of degradation within home composting environments as this fun gardener’s experiment shows.
  • composts into a nutrient-rich fertiliser of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and calcium.
  • is grease and water resistant, microwaveable, freezer-safe and more insulating than plastic making it a very practical solution.
In this chart from Garden Organic’s experiment mentioned above, the plate was made from bagasse, the bag from certified home compostable plant-based film, and the fork from a commercially compostable plant-based plastic.

According to Small99 the only disadvantage of bagasse is that it “may lose some of its strength when used to hold foods hotter than 95 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, as a food packaging material, bagasse is faultless.”

Palm Leaf

The areca catechu linn palm tree grows in moderate temperatures like Southern India and the naturally fallen palm leaves are collected by local people, cleansed with high pressure water jets and then heated in moulds to produce different shapes of containers. No coatings, additives or chemicals are required to make these containers, just the natural leaf and after use they bio-degrade through composting in just six to eight weeks. Containers made from palm leaf are better suited to tableware than takeaway, however, as they are not as light as bagasse or card and would require separate lids.

Polyactic Acid (PLA) & crystallised PLA (CPLA) – a form of bioplastic

This is a commercially compostable material that looks like plastic, but is in fact derived from plant sugars extracted from milled corn. The sugars are then fermented to produce lactic acid and processed into polymer pellets for use in manufacture. Crystallised PLA is used for products that require more heat resistance.

Natureflex – a form of bioplastic

This is a clear film that again looks like plastic, but is made from the cellulose fibres in wood pulp. These fibres are put through a casting process to produce an industrial and home compostable film called NatureFlex. If you need a transparent window for your packaging, this is a good option.

BioPBS – a form of bioplastic

This type of semi-crystalline bioplastic is often used to line containers that need to be heat resistant. It can be made from a variety of plant materials, most typically sugarcane, cassava and corn.

Mater-Bi – a form of bioplastic

This is a strong plant-based material that can be either stiff or flexible. It’s made form ethically sourced vegetable oils, starch, sugar beet pulp or thistle. Wherever possible reclaimed plant oils and waste from agriculture is used.

Recycled Plastic (rPET)

This is, as you would expect, made from recycled plastic, but it is rarely 100% recycled content so you are still bringing new plastic into the world. If you can get 100% recycled plastic containers, this would be a good use of existing plastic.

Plant and water based inks dyes and glues

The inks used when printing and the glues that hold the packaging together are also important. Some inks and glues can be toxic for the environment, so you want to look out for suppliers like Decent Packaging that use plant-based and non toxic inks, dyes and glues. They, like other sustainably focused suppliers, also whiten paper products without bleach, using non toxic oxidation.

More environmentally-friendly materials for other disposables

Fresh produce packaging – Biotransformation®

This is a flexible biodegradable plastic suitable for transporting fresh produce. It’s a relatively new technology, but definitely worth watching and encouraging your suppliers to explore as a possibility if they are currently using plastic to deliver produce to you. Developed by Polymateria alongside Imperial College London, Avient and BEIS, Biotransformation® is a registered trademark for a process that enables plastics to fully self-destruct after one year through normal means of household waste if not recycled first. Unlike oxo-degradation, Biotransformation® is able to transform both crystalline and amorphous phases of polyethelenes (plastic) into an earth-friendly wax residue leaving no microplastic behind. This wax can then go onto safely become the next cycle of life. Currently the only supplier I found offering this innovative technology for takeaway packaging is Flexpak.

Eco cling film and disposable gloves – bagasse bioplastic

While re-usable tupperware is always the best option for storing your fresh ingredients where possible, if you need to use cling film, there are more eco-friendly bioplastic alternatives made from sustainably sourced bagasse (a by-product of the sugarcane industry), which are also recyclable. Willow’s Choice offer both cling film and disposable gloves in this material.

Willow’s Choice bioplastic disposable gloves

So you know what packaging you want, how do you find the best supplier?

Test their knowledge

It’s always the sign of a good supplier if they really know their stuff and you can tell a lot about how much they know and make clear to customers from the information available on their website. In particular, do they have a dedicated and easily accessible page for explaining the materials they use and why they are sustainable or at least more sustainable/eco-friendly than anything else. In my view Vegware has the most comprehensive and accessible materials page of any packaging supplier I came across and much of the information you see here comes from their insightful materials page. One thing Vegware didn’t do, however, which I found elsewhere was display the internationally-recognised certification number which confirms the speed and manner of degradation. Good examples of this were Packaging Environmental and Decent Packaging.

It’s not just a question of transparency and product knowledge, but it also gives an indicator of how innovative they are likely to be when it comes to discovering and implementing new technology that could improve further on what they’ve already got.

Assess their level of dedication to sustainability

It’s a bit different if they are just a packaging distributor, but if you are dealing with a packaging producer, their level of focus on sustainable solutions is also an indicator of how innovative they are likely to be in the future. Some producers will produce a whole range of plastic containers alongside a relatively small range of more sustainable options, while others will only produce plant-based packaging.

Compare prices as closely as possible

Prices vary by material, size and pack size so you’ll need to make yourself a rough benchmark of what you’re looking for and compare prices as closely as possible to get a fair comparison. You’ll also need to take into account the likely volumes you can order in, as that will affect not only the price, but even whether you can work with some suppliers. If you want help, we’ve already done some of this work for you across a whole range of suppliers.

Consider their range

Flexibility is always good especially in hospitality. It’s worth considering the range of options they have available should your menu change in the future or you want to try something different. A good range can also be helpful in a crisis where your standard container is temporarily not available to order.

Ask about availability and price changes

Unlike plastic, plant-based materials are subject to availability and price changes based on the success of annual harvests and growing demand for sustainable packaging. These aren’t instant materials, they normally need at least a year to grow, which means they can’t respond as quickly to market demand. This can affect availability and prices, but each supplier will have their own way of managing market changes. If they have an effective stocking strategy they should be able to mitigate these effects more than most.

Do they deliver themselves?

Not all packaging producers will deliver themselves. There’s nothing wrong with going through a distributor, especially if you can find one local to you, but you will need to be comparing the distributor pricing rather than the producer pricing to get a proper like for like. You will also want to find out how well embedded the product is within the distributor’s business. Do they stock the producer’s full range of packaging or just a few items? How good is their relationship with the producer in terms of ensuring availability?

Where are they based?

This is unlikely going to be your first priority, but you’re trying to reduce the environmental impact of your disposables, so don’t forget to think about the last mile delivery in terms of carbon footprint. Can you find a local distributor or producer with at least a hub or regular route travelled nearby?

Do they offer a collection service for compostables?

Some producers and distributors will offer a collection service, which is important if you want to ensure your compostables get composted effectively and don’t just end in landfill. For packaging that would normally leave your premises, you may want to consider starting a voluntary deposit return scheme, like the ones that will be coming into force in Scotland from July 2022, so you can ensure as much of your packaging gets properly composted as possible. You might even find this tactic generates more customer loyalty.

Do they offer custom branding?

You may wish to custom brand your packaging. Most established packaging producers will support this and many even have their own in-house design teams. The prohibitive factor is most likely going to be the minimum order quantity for the print run especially if you’re a relatively new restaurant or street food trader. As an alternative, you could look at custom branding your greaseproof paper. Printed Greaseproof is a company that promises “short runs, low prices, fast delivery and biodegradable, recyclable, renewable plant-based materials”. Phew, what a mouthful…but it sounds good!

How easy is their website to use?

It sounds superficial, but I think it gives you a good indicator of the levels of service you are likely to receive later on. If their website isn’t easy to use, how well do they understand the customer’s perspective to make life easy for them in all other aspects? One of the things that stood out for me was how comprehensive, clear and accessible the product details were. I found the Packaging Environmental site the easiest to navigate, because it made choosing the right container easy by showing the price and case size on the store front, giving clear dimensions on mouseover, and providing full material details on the product page.

Example from the Packaging Environmental website

Do they add value beyond their products?

Some producers, like Vegware, will add value beyond their products, by providing you with educational point of sale or social media resources. Others might be giving back in other ways such as Who gives a crap? donating 50% of their profits “to ensure everyone has access to clean water and a toilet within our lifetime.”

Speak to one of their customers

And always a useful one for assessing a supplier’s ongoing level of service is to speak to one of their customers and gauge their level of enthusiasm.

Speak to us!

If you’ve read this far, hopefully you are already much clearer on what you need to consider when reducing the environmental impact of your disposables, but if you don’t have time to do all this work yourself, feel free to contact me for further advice and help.

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