In the fight against the rising tide of single-use plastics, food retailers and small businesses across the country have been switching to alternative, plant-based materials for their takeaway packaging.
But how many of us actually know how to dispose of this stuff correctly? And is this really the right way to solve our takeaway trash problem?
The plastic problem in the food industry
Consumer demand for take-away food and drink has boomed in recent years, thanks in the main to the changes in technology available to consumers, restauranteurs, fast food outlets and pubs. According to The Morning Advertiser, takeaway spending grew to a whopping £9.9bn in 2018 – that’s an increase of a third over just 10 years.
And of course, with all of this take-away food, comes so much ‘disposable’ packaging.
Take coffee, for instance. The PCRRG, which represents cup manufacturers and the UK’s major coffee chains, estimated that 2.88billion disposable, takeaway cups would be used this year – equal to a staggering 7.89million per day. This, despite loads of awareness campaigns about their damaging eco-footprint, and a proposed 10p “latte levy” that was eventually rejected in parliament.
In fact the Daily Mail recently reported that since those awareness campaigns, disposable coffee cup sales have actually surged by more than a million.
But the waste issue is much, much bigger than just single-use coffee cups. Trays, cutlery, napkins, pots and boxes all make up the myriad of single-use trash that’s a by-product of eating on the go – and so much of it is made from plastic. The good news is that the food service industry has been taking this on board, with many responding by sourcing packaging solutions in alternative materials; these include compostables, biodegradable containers and cutlery, and plant-based ‘bioplastics’ made of things like sugar cane or corn starch.
But are biodegradable & compostable plastics really the answer to our takeaway trash problem?
To answer that, first it’s important to understand the differences between terms:
- Recyclable: The one we all know – this means the item can be broken down and made into something new if taken to the right processing facility. PET plastic is one of the most widely-recognised examples.
- Biodegradable: This means that the material will eventually break down, but the term holds no promise of timescale; the example used on the Vegware website is “wood is biodegradable for instance, but a log cabin could stand for generations.”
- Compostable: This means that packaging could break down in under 12 weeks – and it’s that promise which tends to give people the warm and fuzzies; surely this means you can enjoy an takeaway latte in a compostable cup and then it will simply disintegrate within a couple of months, leaving no long term effect on the earth!
Sadly, this isn’t the case.
‘Compostables’ still require specific conditions to break down; conditions of heat and pressure and space that are only available inside an industrial facility. In short, these cups and boxes won’t simply cease to exist if left in a hedge or out in the garden for a while; in landfill or the environment, they can last for decades.
What’s more, we don’t have an industrial composting facility anywhere in Wales.
Which means that all of these expensive, alternative packaging solutions are simply going to the same incinerator in Cardiff as the rest of our non-recycleable waste.
And even worse, if they are disposed of incorrectly (and placed in a recycling or food waste bin), they contaminate the rest of batch, making the sorting at the plant even more difficult, if not impossible.
In this short film, Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford Veg, illustrates just how difficult it can be for businesses to make the right choices when it comes to sourcing alternatives to plastic packaging:
It sucks that so many ethically-minded independent businesses are trying to do the right thing by investing in expensive packaging solutions which either 1. end up in the same incinerator as the rest of our crap, 2. end up discarded in gutters, rivers and gardens where they still won’t decompose, or 3. end up in the wrong bin, blighting our other recycling efforts.
But the saddest part for me – by far – is the fact that the biodegradable / compostable label lulls people into thinking they’ve made a more eco-friendly purchase. In reality, it’s not doing anything to help stem the tide of takeaway trash that ends up polluting our environments every single day.
UPDATE: Since writing this blog post, the Welsh Government has announced plans to ban certain single use plastic items by Autumn 2023; though it’s not clear on what the encouraged alternatives will be at this stage.
What can we actually do to help?
When I last posted about this issue on Twitter, one follower simply replied “We just can’t win, can we!?”
I understand this feeling of exasperation. A few years ago I even wrote a (now unpublished) blog post about the independent Cardiff coffee shops using biodegradable cups – mistakenly thinking that it was a real win for sustainability.
But now I realise that swapping one single use material for another is never going to be the answer.
Instead of looking for alternative materials to allow us to continue living an impulsive, disposables-dependant way of life, we need to be making a real, concerted effort to ditch single-use packaging completely.
It’s all about refusing single use, and reusing what we already have. And on the off chance you do find yourself with a disposable container? Please make sure it goes in the right bin.
Refill, Reuse, Repeat
The app connects conscious consumers with more than 1,800 businesses accepting reusables and providing free tap water refills in Wales – including museums, bars, galleries, and supermarkets; as well as smaller, family businesses, local cafes and restaurants. But you can also use it to find places to refill everything from water bottles, coffee cups, and lunch boxes, to household cleaning products and toiletries.
Recently signed up to the app is the Waterloo Tea chain of teahouses. Founder Kasim Ali said “Our tearooms have all recently been added to the Refill app; we display a window sticker to let customers know that they don’t have to buy bottled water, they can refill their reusable water bottles with us for free. We have also launched a new discount scheme for people who use their own takeaway coffee cups, offering 50p off every purchase.”
To find out more, check out this post: Updated Refill app can help you find zero-waste shopping all over Wales.
More Eco-inspiration from Wales
Want to see how other small businesses in Wales are tackling the takeaway trash problem? These guys are bossing it…
1 . Ripple – Ripple is Cardiff’s first not-for-profit, zero-waste lifestyle shop. If you’re ready to get serious about ditching disposable packaging, this is the place to pick up your reusable coffee mugs, lunchboxes, straws and food wraps; and to stock up on your plastic-free household groceries and whole foods.
2. Machynlleth Comedy Festival – At Machfest in 2019, the organisers ditched their usual, disposable plastic pint glasses. But rather than switch to plant-based bioplastics (as so many others are doing), they created branded, reusable ‘glasses’ in a durable, dishwasher-safe plastic that could be refilled at the bar again and again. We kept ours as a picnic-friendly souvenir.
What do you think of the takeaway trash problem? Are you shocked at what the term ‘biodegradable’ actually means? Will you be switching to reusable containers when you eat on the go? If not, why not?
Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.