Rethinking recycling: where to source green food-to-go packaging

09 March 2019 by
Rethinking recycling: where to source green food-to-go packaging

Many operators have jumped on the plastics recycling bandwagon, but some are criticising these knee-jerk reactions, pointing out that reusing isn't as easy as it first appears. Angela Frewin separates fact from fiction

The hot topic of last year was the consumer-led backlash against the packaging and disposables that account for 70% of the UK's plastic waste.

"‘Single-use' was declared the ‘word of the year' by Collins dictionary in 2018, as sustainability and the need to tackle the ever-growing war on waste were firmly fixed in consumers' minds," says Chris Beckley, managing director at wholesaler KFF.

The options are to use less plastic, recycle or reuse it, or employ alternative, sustainable materials, says Campden BRI, a service supplier to the F&B industry. On 19 March it is hosting a sustainable packaging seminar at London's Excel Centre within the International Food and Drink Event, whose February survey found the biggest challenges facing businesses were reducing single-use plastic consumption (31%) and making packaging sustainable (21%).

"Foodservice, like retail, has a leading role to play in being responsible users of plastics," says Hugo Mahoney, chief executive officer at Brakes, which is collaborating with suppliers to tackle unnecessary and single-use packaging. In 2018, it became the first wholesaler to sign up to the WRAP UK Plastic Pact (see panel) and the first to commit to eliminating non-recyclable black plastic from its own brands by 2020.

A sustainability drive at Oliver Kaye Produce (which will be rolled out across parent company Bidfood), has made 80% of its packaging recyclable. It's the first catering greengrocer to replace polystyrene trays with compostable sugarcane alternatives, and plastic fruit nets with compostable beechwood netting. It has also launched 100% recyclable plastic wrap and, the final step, says commercial and sustainability director Paul Leyland, is to upgrade its biodegradable plastic bags with fully compostable or recyclable options.

"Rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle" is the mantra at wholesaler Bidfood, whose 120-plus plastic-free options include the Can-O-Water (a resealable can), compostable sandwich packs, bio boxes and takeaway trays made from pulped reed or sugar cane, and a reusable, recyclable coffee cup made from rice husk and plant resin.

Huhtamaki's Future Smart cup
Huhtamaki's Future Smart cup

Unintended consequences

But fears that strategy is being driven too hastily by knee-jerk reactions rather than facts were aired at the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) environment seminar in January. WWF's Tony Juniper argued that plastic plays a key role in protecting and preserving food, reducing the food waste he identified as the bigger threat to the planet, while Professor David Bucknall from Heriot-Watt University warned, "We will have a four-fold increase in environmental costs if we replace all plastic for packaging] with other materials."

"Switching to alternatives to please customers without ensuring facilities exist locally to deal with them does not solve the issue," agrees FPA executive director Martin Kersh. "The government seeks more producer responsibility and that means all operators, irrespective of size, will be involved in paying for the costs of the waste management and recycling of the packaging they use.

Britain's patchy collection and recycling infrastructure means many recycled products still end up in landfill or incinerators. Bio-plastic lined or coated paper cups and compostable products (which don't break down in landfill if incorrectly composted) require specialist collection and treatment, while biodegradable products decay into harmful microplastics in the absence of oxygen, heat and sunlight.

Operators should discuss their options with their waste contractors or join a specialist cup scheme, suggests Becci Eplett, marketing manager at Huhtamaki, whose recyclable and compostable catering disposables are made locally from traceable and certified renewable or sustainable materials.

In fact, Eplett reports "significant advances in recycling" over the past year, which includes Huhtamaki's Solent cup recycling collaboration with Simply Cups, Bettavend and local authorities. It collects paper cups from recycling bins across Gosport, Portsmouth and Southampton for delivery to specialist recycling centres.

In October 2018, the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group confirmed that cup recycling rates have soared from just one in 400 cups to one in 25 in two years. They are predicted to increase to one in 12 this year. There are now, it reports, 21 waste collectors (up from two) and five reprocessors and more than 4,500 recycling points. The link-up between 14 cross-industry organisations with the Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment in 2017 means that 115 local authorities now collect PE-lined paper cups with beverage cartons.


But Huhtamaki is concerned that the EU Single-Use Plastic directive poses a potential threat to containers with recyclable polymer coatings or linings - such as its Future Smart PEFC-certified paperboard with a sugarcane-based PE (polyethylene) moisture barrier coating - which are currently the best-performing alternatives to plastic.

As well as banning plastic straws and cutlery, the directive proposes restrictions on plastic cups, plates and food containers - a category that, at present, includes paperboard products with a 5%-10% plastic content. Huhtamaki believes this risks hygiene and food safety and would prefer to focus on improving the collection and recycling infrastructure.

Drinks discount

Reusable cup schemes provide another solution. Pret A Manger saw a tenfold increase in customers bringing in their own cups after increasing its beverage discount from 25p to 50p in January 2018 - it now serves more than 85,000 drinks in reusable cups each week. And Twickenham Racecourse served 9.12 million pints in its £1 refundable, reusable eco cups (made from homopolymer polypropylene) that it introduced in 2014. Racegoers can keep them and have taken 2.19 million eco cups away to reuse - in some cases up to 75 times.

High-tech solutions can also enhance the life and value of cups. "New technologies, such as electronically-activated bottles and a connected reusable coffee cup, are entering the mainstream," says Peter Cusick, head of food and drink at Roythornes Solicitors.

The battery-powered electronic bottle - launched in the US to reduce liquid spills - contains an integrated touch sensor activated by the user's lips, while the connected reusable coffee cup (by Icon Connective Digital) contains an NFC chip which, Cusick says, "allows customers to make contactless payments and participate in interactive loyalty schemes." It's a route Costa Coffee has followed with its £14.99 reusable aluminium Clever Cup, which contains a Barclaycard bPay payment chip that can be used like a bank card at contactless paypoints.

Preserving packaging's benefits while shrinking its environmental footprint demands co-operation across society, WRAP chief executive Marcus Gover intimated at its Roadmap launch: "These targets cannot be delivered by business action alone. It needs policy intervention as well as consumers to play a part."

WRAP party

Charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) launched its UK Plastics Pact last April with 68 business members and a £20m government fund for flagship projects to tackle barriers to improved sorting, recycling 
and use of recycled content.

Its Roadmap to 2025 includes targets to help businesses transform plastic from single-use disposables to valued resources:

  1. Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign, innovation or reuse
  2. 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  3. 70% of plastic packaging to be effectively recycled or composted
  4. 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging (the Chancellor is considering a new tax on plastic packaging falling below this level).

Smart water

While the government considers a deposit return scheme to collect plastic bottles and cans through reverse vending machines, the Water Smart Foundation charity and water technology company WET Global aims to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles and the micro-plastics they contain by supplying operators with Pure Ionic alkaline antioxidant water and reusable, brandable glass bottles.

It installs the water enhancement system at no cost, raising funds from literage used or a small donation on customer bills to install fountains in public places and schools and to support related campaigns such as London's OneLess and the global SeeChange project.


Frugal Cup, launched in February by Frugalpac, is the only single-use coffee cup that can be disposed in the mainstream waste process, thanks to a food-grade PE liner that separates easily from the recycled paperboard cup.

Green Planet Catering supplier IG Group's new company offers biodegradable and compostable straws and glassware made from PLA (derived from sustainable corn starch, cassava root or sugarcane); food cartons made from bagasse (recycled sugarcane pulp); two tableware lines made from bagasse or naturally-fallen palm leaves; and paperboard cups.

StrEAT, KeCo Foodservice Packaging's seven-strong range of food-to-go boxes, scoops, trays, pockets, sleeves and cones (including a leak-proof, greaseproof noodle/curry box and multi-food tray) is inspired by global street food and made from recyclable and biodegradable brown paper. KeCo also offers disposables made from sustainable cartonboard and bagasse.

Our 100% compostable wrapper

From this week's print issue of The Caterer, we're proud to announce that we've switched to a fully compostable starch wrapper, in partnership with Brita.

The wrapper is made from corn that has been left out of the food chain and processed to release the starch, which is manufactured into granules.

Instead of throwing it away, please put it in with your food waste, garden compost or in a green council recycling bin.

If, like The Caterer, you are focused on helping hospitality make a difference to the planet, there is an opportunity to partner with us on a number of exciting sustainability projects. To find out more, please email

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