The problem with single use packaging

by Gabriella Bittante, BHA Policy Manager

Disposable packaging is part of everyday life. With more people eating and drinking on the go, and lunch ‘hours’ reduced to a mere 34 minutes on average, to-go options for busy workers and commuters are increasingly popular, and a necessary source of income for caterers, whose customer base has increasingly fewer minutes to sit and enjoy their meals. In our fast-paced modern society, single-use food packaging is an endemic problem, from meal boxes, pizza boxes and coffee cups, to plastic cutlery and plastic straws.

These non-degradable disposable items may be convenient, but they are problematic for our environment. Every year, millions of tonnes worth of unrecycled packaging waste ends up in landfill, wasting resources, creating polluting chemicals and posing a threat to marine wildlife. Straws especially, small and light and non-degradable, are often blown from landfill, and end up lodged in the nostrils of sea turtles or eaten by marine animals.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact of single-use plastics, and are demanding sustainable alternatives, and those companies that are responding to these demands are reaping the benefits. Choosing sustainable alternatives, ensuring proper recycling practices are in place, and working with your supply chain to move towards environmentally friendly packaging materials are all ways businesses can contribute to reducing the impact of packaging waste.

Some companies have chosen to move towards using dedicated eco-friendly containers and packaging products, including renewable compostable cups, napkins and takeaway containers, using plant based materials. Options like compostable board cups and straws break down into compost piles mean that less ends up in landfill, reducing the ecological impact of packaging on the environment. A great example of this is CH&Co’s efforts at London Zoo, who are currently in the process of replacing all meal containers and packaging with Vegware – a compostable alternative to catering disposables. At present, London Zoo uses 40% compostable packaging at front of house and plans for this to reach 100% by the end of the year – they estimate this will save 7.9 tonnes of waste from landfill every year and 8.3 tonnes of carbon – equivalent to cancelling out the carbon from 15 flights from London to New York.

Coffee cups have attracted a lot of media attention, and last year, industry responded to consumer demand for better handling of paper cups. The Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group was launched along with an industry wide manifesto with the objective of increasing paper cup recovery and recycling rates by 2020. This manifesto saw the paper cup supply chain pledging to work together to ensure paper cups are designed, used, disposed of and collected to maximise the opportunities for recycling by investment in projects to deliver these ends. By working throughout the length of the supply chain, industry can make a huge impact. 

There are also practices hospitality businesses can implement both at front and back of house. Drinking straws can be handed out only on request, proper recycling and waste stream management policies can be put in place, and staff trained to properly implement recycling processes.

The British Hospitality Association is committed to supporting government and businesses in the aim to reduce waste from food and associated packaging on a voluntary basis. The hospitality industry and its supply chain have already made significant progress in improving its environmental performance, and we continue to seek ways to encourage businesses to cut waste further. The BHA’s Waste Not Want Not guide is a 10-part mini-series of practical toolkits packed full of operational examples of best practice to manage waste effectively. The Sustainable Restaurant Association have also produced a range of resources to help businesses reduce their use of plastic.

Although waste can never be completely eliminated, there are significant cost saving opportunities and environmental benefits to be realised through proper waste management and implementing sustainable alternatives.

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