John Haken, director at W.F. Denny, discusses the problem of packaging waste in the catering industry and asks what businesses can do to address this.

In 2019, considerate consumers are becoming the norm and practising eco-friendly policies can be a big influence on whether or not consumers decide to buy from you.

Furthermore, as the conversation around sustainability and single-use plastics continues, it is crucial for businesses to embrace environmentalism or risk becoming extinct.

However, while it’s easy to imagine the changes that can be made in many industries, businesses in food production and catering might be unaware of what can be done to reduce their waste output.

For catering companies and professional kitchens, one of the biggest environmental factors is excess packaging. This packaging comes in the form of containers for food items, plastic wraps for ingredients and in many cases, disposable cutlery and utensils.

An article in The Guardian suggested that the UK uses enough takeaway cartons per year to fill the Royal Albert Hall 1000 times. Based on the average weight for a mixed takeaway container, that equates to around 3 million tonnes of packaging waste each year - of which most ends up in landfills.

Plastic has been a part of the food and drink industry for almost a century; it can be found in every stage of the process from manufacturing to retailing.

So what can be done to reduce packaging waste?

Most companies are already recycling to some degree, but many people don’t realise that recycling is actually the third and least effectual option  in ecological steps that can be taken.

The 3 Rs are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle and the best step a company can take is to reduce the amount of plastic used.

The first consideration should be to prevent excess packaging from coming into the kitchen in the first place. This can be achieved by auditing what you are receiving from different suppliers. You may be able to reduce the plastic you’re throwing away by changing a supplier or process.

Mixed unprepared fruit and veg could be supplied in returnable plastic crates. This will cut out some poly bags and cardboard boxes. In the same way, prepared veg in poly bags could be delivered within the returnable trays. Where tinned products are being delivered in part boxes, they could be put in a tray instead to save bulky cardboard.

Once you have dealt with what is coming in to the kitchen, the obvious next step is to look at what you are sending out. This means reviewing the packaging items you are giving to customers.

Plastic tray containers for food items could be replaced with biodegradable packaging items  such as bagasse containers which are made using pulped sugar cane. 

Bagasse items can be used to hold hot food items, however, there are limitations when it comes to liquid-based foods, such as curries. This is due to the fibres of the bagasse can absorb the fluid, making the container less rigid.

Alternatively, caterers can consider switching to card products. However, it’s important to ensure the product can be easily recycled.  Many card takeaway boxes are lined with plastic as it helps to prevent leakages and increase the structural integrity of the box but prevents them from being recycled with household paper waste.

There are schemes on the horizon which will look to improve the availability of recycling facilities for card takeaway boxes. There are currently schemes underway within companies such as McDonalds to recycle their plastic lined paper coffee cups and these schemes can easily be extended to food boxes if they prove successful.

A third option is foil packaging products. Foil takeaway containers are easy to recycle and cost effective; however, they can cause frustration to customers as they are more prone to leaks and aren’t as easily reheated as plastic polypropylene and recyclable bagasse items.

In essence, customers want to be able to reduce waste and recycle but it’s up to businesses and government schemes to make it straightforward enough for them to do without too much difficulty. This can be observed in statistics on what happened to plastic bags in supermarkets.

If your company is able to provide an opportunity to reduce an individual's waste output, without making huge changes to their lives, there is an opportunity to drive more sales, get in front of planned changes to legislation and also make necessary environmental changes.