Disposables remain central to the success of catering businesses, but suppliers and operators are under increased legislative, financial and social pressures to green up, reports Angela Frewin
The growing sophistication of catering disposables has played a key role in the explosion of café culture and grazing-on-the-go that has brought new business opportunities to cafés, restaurants, pubs and staff canteens.
"Packaging is helping drive business success in our sector, particularly in ‘food to go' where design, innovation, practicality and the development of more sustainable packaging solutions are seeing huge success," says Neil Whittall, chairman of the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA).
But, with much of this success seen littering our high streets, suppliers and operators face increased pressure to adopt more sustainable solutions - be it using environmentally friendlier, renewable or recycled materials, or ensuring products are recycled or composted with food waste into fertiliser or bio-gas.
Although green alternatives can cost 10% to 30% more than conventional oil-derived plastics, suppliers seem to be thriving even in the depths of recession.
But much more could be done, according to WRAP, the government body created to help businesses and consumers reduce waste. The organisation believes the hospitality sector could save £274m a year by recycling more and avoiding food waste. It estimates the sector sends 43% of the 3.4 million tonnes of mixed waste it produces annually to landfill, when 70% of this could have been recycled.
Landfill tax - now £64 per tonne and rising by £8 each year - makes this the most expensive destination for waste and WRAP reckons caterers could save £29 per tonne of waste diverted from rubbish dumps.
But Henry Stephenson, managing director of catering equipment firm Stephensons, suspects cost is not currently informing recycling or buying decisions because many companies are unaware of it.
"Most independent businesses use their local council's amenities to recycle their disposals, as the cost is accounted for within their business rates. Larger organisations use waste disposal companies, as this negates the worry of complying with correct recycling procedures," he says.
Current legislation is also failing to lead the way, says Huhtamaki's managing director, John Young, who describes it as a "mish mash" of elements from food waste and packaging regulations that spill over into take-away disposables. Adejare Doherty, managing director of the Wholeleaf Co, adds that it applies only to larger operators - for instance, the Producer Responsibility (Packaging Waste) Regulations are restricted to firms that generate £2m in turnover and 50 tonnes of waste a year.
Scotland, however, has moved ahead of the curve. Zero waste rules (backed by an £8m government investment in councils and waste collection schemes) will compel all Scottish firms to separate paper, card, plastic, metal and glass for recycling by January 2014 (or 2015 for smaller operators) along with food waste if it exceeds 50kg per week. This could have a trickle-down effect down south, according to compostable champion Vegware, as big players favour a standard approach across their operations.
But the main impetus greening our disposables currently comes from the consumer, says Doherty. "The real ‘carrot' for businesses is the attitudes and demands of their customers. The global zeitgeist is now such that businesses are expected to act in a more sustainable manner," he adds.
"Whereas it used to be a way to stand out, using sustainable disposables is now more about not being left behind than really getting ahead - it is becoming the norm."
Consumer pressure means much of the "hard work and sweat" in developing solutions is done by the big boys such as McDonald's, Starbucks and Costa, who want to be seen to be doing the right thing - and they expect the same of their suppliers, says Young.
For instance, Costa challenged his firm to strip out one of the three layers in its paper cups while improving insulation. The project took two years to develop and spawned a new material that is now part of Huhtamaki's standard range. Behind the scenes, Huhtamaki recycles the waste from its paper cups to make paper bowls, helping to keep down the cost to its customers.
The weak link in this virtuous chain of expectations is what Young describes as a frustratingly "inconsistent" and "disjointed" recycling infrastructure - especially for composting - which must be addressed by national and local government. Fears that the absence of plans to expand facilities and improve the collection and separation of waste will undermine government recycling targets have prompted the FPA to combine its lobbying voice with the British Plastics Federation.
This gap in the loop means deep-green products may still end up in landfill, proving a false economy for many operators and a reason why many are reverting to recycled rather than recyclable products.
Remmerco has taken an alternative approach - in addition to developing a sustainable line of bamboo plates, platters and bowls, it has shifted its core offer from disposable to "short-life, multiple-use" recyclable plastic products.
"While it can be said that some of the materials are not the most environmentally friendly available, the reusable factor reduces wastage and cost by up to 50 times," says managing director Richard Remmer.
Vegware, however, blames the perceived dearth of composting facilities on a "woeful lack of information" that stems from explosive growth bringing the sector to near national coverage, a situation it uncovered after calling every food waste collector, on-site recycling firm and processing plant in the UK to help its own customers close the loop. As a result, it has recently launched the Food Waste Network, a free public service that matchmakes caterers with their local amenities.
As most education comes from distributors and suppliers, consumers remain the other weak link in the system, says Wholeleaf's Doherty. For instance, they are unlikely to differentiate compostable PLA disposables (which pollute the plastics waste stream) from their oil-based PET equivalents, or know if their paper cup has a compostable PLA lining, or a recyclable plastic barrier.
Catering vending specialist Options Management offers consumer incentives as a solution. Its vending package to schools and colleges - which it has extended to high-street and B&I customers - includes a reverse vending option that rewards customers who return their disposables with a free bottle or a discount off their next purchase.
The supplier has just rescued from administration the Save A Cup collection and recycling scheme (set up by the industry 20 years ago but sold in recent years to brokerage group Shilling) and intends to adapt it to its own business model while making it sustainable and commercially viable.
The industry remains mindful that ministers may simply slap a punitive tax on disposables if its combined efforts fail to meet targets. And while there are many organisations and schemes working on the issue, the industry currently lacks a strong, unified voice to force decisions at the national level.
WRAP is looking to take a lead this summer when it launches a voluntary scheme to help the hospitality sector reduce waste, optimise packaging and increase recycling rates. At the same time, its zero-waste policy will be showcased at the London Olympics, where London Bio Packaging says it aims to recycle or compost 90% of all waste generated.
Oil-based materials are cheap but come from non-renewable fossil fuels; some can be tricky to recycle and contain toxic chemicals that could leach into food. They include traditional mainstay polystyrene (PS) along with polycarbonate (PC), acrylic (polymethylmethacrylate) and polypropylene (PP). Rising stars PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and rPET (partly made from recycled post-consumer plastic waste) are easier to recycle.
Renewable plant-based materials making inroads into disposables include wood, bamboo, reed and paper, which can be recycled and/or composted. PLA (polylactic acid, a starch from crops such as corn) requires 77% less energy to produce than PET but carries ethical concerns over the amount of water and cropland needed to grow it. This is less an issue for bagasse (processed sugar cane waste fibres) and palm leaf.
Coca-Cola's new PlantBottle heralds a new hybrid generation of PET plastics derived from plants. While bio-PET, like PET, still needs to be mixed with virgin material when recycled, this is from renewable sources.
For throwaway items, disposables must tick a lot of boxes that demand much time, ingenuity and money to achieve, with green versions expected to perform at least as well as conventional lines.
Disposables must offer hygiene and protection from burns and spills; present food and drink appealingly; meet demands for rigidity or flexibility; and keep food fresh, cold, or warm, or allow it to be chilled, frozen or reheated in an oven or microwave.
Packaging may also have to promote the brand, its eco-credentials (as in Biopac's new I'm A Green Cup) or events.
And upmarket venues demand five-star style - examples range from Duni's embossed, linen-shimmer Elegance napkins made from recycled paper to Remmerco's glass-look PS platters and appetiser dishes, china- and porcelain-like bamboo bowls, and marble- and silver-effect PET platters.
Trends towards more diverse and healthy meals have stimulated the development of new types of take-away containers for soups, porridge, salads, ice-cream/frozen yogurt, Mexican meals and pasta, along with clear cups for juices.
Foodservice Packaging Associationwww.foodservicepackaging.org.uk
Food Waste Networkwww.foodwastenetwork.org.uk
The Sustainable Restaurant Associationwww.thesra.org
WRAP (Waste Reduction Action Plan)www.wrap.org.uk
Biopac 01386 555777
Huhtamaki 023 9251 2434
London Bio Packaging 020 7471 3700
Options Management/Save A Cup 01782 629888
Remmerco 0845 370 0161
Stephensons Catering 0161-483 6256
Vegware 0845 643 0406
The Wholeleaf Co 020 7183 6648