With the rising cost of landfill plus associated manufacturing and cleaning costs, proponents of sustainability argue durable tableware needs to be used 39 times to be more cost-effective than disposables. John Porter reports
The sustainability debate is one which understandably evokes strong feelings. That can be a challenge for caterers when it comes to be making buying decisions which need to be based at least as much on business reasons as on environmental considerations.
Direct comparisons between the upfront costs of buying durable or disposable tableware are relatively straightforward. A comparison between the online catalogues of two industry suppliers (see panel on opposite page), one a well-known tableware supplier and the other a specialist in sustainable, compostable disposables, shows that, on the face of it, the cost of buying 50 durable sets of crockery and cutlery is just under five times that of buying 1,000 disposable sets. Assuming that each durable set gets a minimum of 20 uses - and most operators would aim for more - then the lifetime cost of durables is about a fifth of that of disposables.
However, proponents of sustainability would argue that other costs need to be factored in. For example, the cost of raw materials such as iron ore, and the energy cost of production, are substantially higher for a stainless-steel cutlery set than for a set of compostable cutlery made from corn starch. The ongoing cost of warewashing also needs to be included.
Direct cost comparisons are very hard to come by. The issue was examined by researchers at the University of Victoria in Canada, who compared the cost of reusable ceramic, glass and plastic drinking vessels to paper and polystyrene disposable cups. Taking into account the increased cost of materials and manufacturing for durables, along with lifetime costs such as dishwashing, the research estimated that a durable needs to be used 39 times to be more cost effective than a disposable.
Ed Franklin, marketing manager of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), makes the point that such comparison figures "are very sensitive to the energy consumption of the dishwasher used - this also counts hugely." As commercial dishwashers become more eco-friendly, the number of times a durable cup has to be used before becoming a "better" choice reduces.
Of course, the choice facing most caterers is not simply between using durables and disposables, factors such as the style of service need to be taken into account. There will be numerous operations where durables will always be used, and others, such as take-aways, which only use disposables. Many fall somewhere in the middle, increasing their use of disposables as hot drinks and take-away food become increasingly profitable sidelines.
The SRA, which was founded in 2010 to support businesses to address issues from local food sourcing to disposal of waste, encourages the businesses it audits to use eco-friendly products when disposables are needed.
One business that has made the switch is the Table café, a 48-seat canteen-style restaurant in Southwark, south London. Chef and owner Shaun Alpine-Crabtree says: "In many ways it feels like the battle's lost, that there's nothing that can be done about climate change, but we think that makes it all the more important that individuals do what they think is right."
Alongside initiatives such as an application for Marine Stewardship Council accreditation, to demonstrate that fish and seafood on the menu comes from sustainable sources, and using green energy tariffs, the Table only uses disposables that are recyclable or compostable.
That includes cups, plates, cutlery, sandwich wrapping paper and lunch-boxes used for takeaway salads. "We mainly source from Vegware, and we're currently trialling a compostable blue cleaning cloth which they've recently developed. That makes a big difference to the amount we send for composting - like many businesses we use a lot of cleaning cloths."
The Table is a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association as well as being involved in London's Sustainable City initiative. Currently, bins with compostable material in are collected from the Table by recycling specialist First Mile.
Additionally, the Table is now working with the local authority to see if a local composting facility can be set up for businesses in the Bankside area. "It's a challenge, but it would make a big difference to the distance waste has to travel, "says Alpine-Crabtree.
Landfill or compost?
Landfill Tax increased by £8 a tonne on 1 April, to stand at £56 a tonne, and will continue to rise at the same rate until April 2014, when the standard rate of landfill tax will stand at £80 per tonne. Caterers typically pay the cost of landfill tax as part of the fee charged by a local authority or private waste collector to collect and dispose of commercial waste.
Rather than simply pay the increased costs, the SRA and environmental disposable company Vegware say caterers need to recognise that £56 a tonne marks an important tipping point.
Put simply, the estimated cost, including separating recyclable waste and paying for specialist collection, is just under £50 a tonne - lower than the cost of simply sending all waste to landfill.
Lucy Frankel, communications manager at Vegware, says: "When the costs were more or less the same, many businesses simply didn't bother going to the trouble of having separate bins to split waste. The one big general bin is now only for environmentally irresponsible businesses with more money than sense. Landfill is now the most expensive option of all."
Using compostable disposables has the added advantage that plates, cups and cutlery don't have to be separated from food waste, a task which is both messy and time consuming in a busy kitchen. Both the disposables and any food or drink left by customers can be put in the same bin and sent for composting.
Geoff Page, managing director of Cap-It-All, which supplies the GoodLife range of disposables, says: "Today there is very little difference in price between environmentally friendly and standard disposables; sometimes there is none at all.
"Using environmentally friendly products in the place of standard disposables will help businesses to meet their waste packaging regulations and reduce the impact that the day-to-day running of their company has on the environment. Not only is that great news for the environment but it also means that those businesses have a great story to tell their customers."
50 11-inch ceramic round dinner plates £367.50
50 8-inch dessert bowls £380.50
50 each stainless-steel knives, forks and spoons £358.00
50 coffee cup and saucer set £290.50
1,000 disposable 10-inch round dinner plates £93.02
1,000 disposable 12oz bowls £51.08
1,000 each disposable knives, forks and spoons £87.39
1,000 disposable 12oz white coffee cups £62.94
The costs quoted are before VAT and any supplier discounts.
what can be recycled?
An estimated 90% of catering business waste can be recycled using a three bin system:
Compostables bin food waste and compostable packaging and disposables
â- Dry recyclables bin plastics, cans, tins, ink cartridges, paper, cardboard
â- Landfill bin standard packaging contaminated with food waste, laminated paper, pouches, crisp packets
five reasons to use disposables
John Young, UK foodservice sales & marketing director for Huhtamaki UK, outlines five reasons for caterers to consider using disposables.
Hygiene Single-use disposables are a hygienic alternative to crockery and tableware. They can be disposed of once used so are ideal for environments were hygiene and cleanliness are of great importance, and of course they make clear up even easier.
Quality High quality products can help with the presentation, insulation and general appearance of a takeaway offering.
Insulation It's important, especially with disposable cups, that a product's insulation is fit for purpose. With takeaway paper cups, not only is it important to keep the beverage hot, but to keep customer comfort in mind - so the cup shouldn't feel too hot when held.
Aesthetics Well-designed disposables enhance the presentation of service, so modern print designs and custom printing services can be used to provide a more premium offering.
Range Having a wide range of disposables to choose from allows businesses to target different occasions and customer types.
Cap-It-All 01925 211490
Huhtamaki UK 023 9251 2434
Sustainable Restaurant Association 020 7479 4224
Vegware 0845 643 0406