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Trash talk: Skye Gyngell on easy ways to drop single-use plastic

27 October 2018 by
Trash talk: Skye Gyngell on easy ways to drop single-use plastic

Single-use plastic has been a hot topic of conversation for months, with many claiming it to be a necessity in kitchens. But at Spring, Skye Gyngell has managed to fully eradicate it. Emma Lake finds out how it was done

At the beginning of 2018 Skye Gyngell set herself the challenge of ridding her restaurant, Spring, in London's Somerset House, of single-use plastic.

After listening to a talk by Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland (see panel), Gyngell looked around the restaurant and saw plastic everywhere. She acknowledges that the size of the problem facing the planet led her to "catastrophise", but 10 months on, Spring has successfully banished single-use plastic, an achievement that the chef says was, on reflection, "incredibly easy".

Gyngell started by getting her brigade behind her. She offered staff pizza and beer as an incentive to come into the restaurant on a Sunday to watch the short version of the film Plastic Ocean and brainstorm what they could do.

The chef says: "The best thing we did was getting everybody involved so they felt it was their mission and not just Skye's mission."

The restaurant's approach was to turn off the tap rather than looking at recyclable or even biodegradable products. The reality is that even if these items are placed in the right bin, most will end up in landfill as there is not the infrastructure to meet demand.

Staff from the kitchen, bar and front of house led their departments in highlighting examples of plastic use and researching alternatives. Like so many others who have watched Blue Planet II or A Plastic Ocean, the Spring team embraced the challenge at work and home, with Gyngell saying many would come in speaking about wooden toothbrushes or phone covers they had purchased.

At Spring, kitchen favourite clingfilm was high on Gyngell's list after the restaurant went through its back orders and found that it used some 3,600km a year - enough to stretch from London to Cairo. The chef also discovered that the restaurant's 30,000 paper ice-cream cups - which, if stacked, would be three times the height of the Shard - had a thin layer of plastic, meaning they were not actually recyclable.

Making a change

The chef says that when she started searching, she found that alternatives were available. Eradicating clingfilm started with the purchase of lids and labels. Rather than using clingfilm to cover pots and gastros, a lid was popped on followed by a label. Other food items are wrapped in Bee's Wrap, a natural, reusable and compostable alternative made from cotton and beeswax.

She says: "We went cold turkey. Buying the lids was a real penny-drop moment for us. We had been doing really wasteful things because we weren't thinking about it. We would pile up our tablecloths and napkins before sending them back and we would wrap them in clingfilm. At the end of service we would reach for the clingfilm, cover all the gastros and put them in the fridge - we don't need to do that, just put a lid on and label it."

Ceramic ice-cream pots were brought in, the restaurant's soap supplier has been changed, plastic straws are out, and staff now drink from stainless steel mugs in the kitchen.

Suppliers were also told that plastic or polystyrene wouldn't be accepted and the majority complied. Gyngell says: "We just rang them up and said we're only going to accept cardboard - most people want to work with you and realise everybody has to do something."

One challenge Gyngell has not yet overcome is finding an alternative to the plastic sheets used to wrap the delicate leaves harvested from Fern Verrow farm, with which the restaurant has an exclusive partnership that sees it take everything that is harvested.

She explains: "The leaves do not like the fridge and do not like temperate weather. Basically, they don't like not being in the ground. The only thing that works is laying them on plastic and tucking them in. We've set up a washing line downstairs and we wash the plastic sheets, fold them and return them to be used again."

Single-use plastic has been the focus of Gyngell's 2018 challenge, but the restaurant aims to become plastic-free. Not wanting to "throw the baby out with the bathwater", the team will replace longer-use plastic items with non-plastic alternatives as they break.

The chef is encouraging others to look at their businesses and see what they can do. At the start of 2018 there was a big drive to cut down on single-use plastic in the hospitality industry, which saw the mass eradication of plastic straws, but many businesses have left it there.

Gyngell explains: "It's the power of one. You may think: 'Why should I bother? What difference can I make? I'm only one person.' But one plus one, plus one, plus one - the power of one is really powerful. We have to do it.

"I think really, if nothing else, it makes good business sense. Sustainability is a very hot topic and I don't think that any of us, whatever business you're in, can not have a sustainable footprint as part of their ethos. I think that's expected. A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon in the beginning and then maybe it became difficult and people dropped off. It did cost us money - between £2,500 and £3,000 - but it's been incredibly easy. I thought it was going to be impossible. I was completely catastrophising, but I actually now feel it's doable to clean up the oceans."

A Plastic Planet

Skye Gyngell was driven to act after listening to a talk by Sian Sutherland, the co-founder of campaign group Plastic Planet. The group was founded in January 2017 with the goal of "turning off the plastic tap".

It has particularly addressed the issues of plastic in the food and drink industries, leading the call for supermarkets to have plastic-free aisles, which has received the backing of prime minister Theresa May.

Plastic Planet has been vocal in busting the myth that plastic can be - and is - widely recycled. Since the 1950s only 9% of the 6.3 billion tonnes of conventional plastic waste has been recycled, compared with 90% of aluminium. Plastic is difficult to reclaim, often contaminated, and it doesn't always make financial sense to recycle it.

Plastic Planet has also highlighted that more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste were sent by Britain to China and Hong Kong between 2012 and their import ban in January this year.

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