We need to rethink packaging for food to go

28 May 2021, 07:12 AM
  • Takeaways and food to go solved one problem during the Covid-19 pandemic, but they created another, says Sohrab Kazemahvazi, senior vice president of formed fiber at Stora Enso
We need to rethink packaging for food to go

The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard-hitting for much of the UK’s food and beverage industry, particularly for small independent businesses. The entire industry has been forced to reimagine its business operations in order to adhere to new health and safety regulations and fluctuating restrictions – as well as changing consumer behaviours.

Since the pandemic began, takeaway and delivery services have offered a lifeline for lots of fine food retailers. For many, these new operations will remain an ingrained part of business, offering additional revenue streams. A positive outcome certainly, but a new problem surrounds the packaging waste associated with food to go and delivery packaging. Of course, this packaging is essential for heat retention and protection when travelling, but does it really have to be plastic?

The plastic waste concern associated with food to go and takeaway packaging is no revelation. However, as these new operations thrive throughout the pandemic, it is of the utmost importance that we rethink the process and look to ways of eliminating plastic from our service cycles.

Order #46400000

Businesses have been forced to look to new and creative ways of working under imposed restrictions. And for the majority of food and drink retailers, takeaway, food to go and delivery services have been the go-to solution.

This was echoed in the wider industry where Just Eat alone took 46.4 million takeaway orders in the UK between July and August last year. An incredible taking despite the government’s best efforts to encourage people back into restaurants with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme in August. More recently, the food delivery giant reported a surge in orders by almost 400% during its fourth quarter. These are astronomical figures that don’t even begin to capture the thousands of fine food retailers in the UK that have adopted takeaway and delivery services independently.

Food to go and delivery services have been well-loved for their convenience, but we can’t ignore the concerning use of plastic packaging. For example, when reporters at the Sunday Times ordered 15 takeaway meals, they were served with 103 individual pieces of plastic packaging – even after declining extra cutlery. This excessive amount of plastic waste has only been accelerated by the pandemic, creating an immense contribution to the UK’s plastic waste problem.

A moment on the lips, a lifetime in the tips

Plastic waste is widely recognised as a key contributor to the climate crisis. Made from fossil fuels, when plastic ends up in landfills, it can take as long as 1,000 years to decompose. With that in mind, using plastic packaging as a means of storing food for a matter of hours seems completely illogical.

The industry has made reasonable progress towards plastic-free packaging alternatives but there is so much more to be done. Paper, formed fiber and biomass-based materials offer solutions which are free of plastic and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), allowing for hygienic and convenient packaging for the food and beverage sector.

Scepticism often surrounds such materials as their ability to hold wet items without becoming saturated tends to be questioned. Some paper straws, for example, are known to cause frustration as they often end up soggy and useless before you finish your drink. However, there are now biodegradable solutions that offer fiber-based packaging water-, grease- and oil-resistant barrier properties, allowing for reliable and recyclable products.

There are clear advantages to adopting eco alternatives, such as a lower carbon footprint than fossil-based materials, high recyclability rates and less waste contribution. It’s important to note that unlike its polluting predecessor, these packaging alternatives are renewable and can be sourced from sustainably managed forests – allowing the raw materials to grow back faster than it’s consumed. What’s more, switching to renewably sourced packaging will not only benefit the environment – it is also well-positioned to benefit your business.

As net-zero targets and climate change are pushed up the agenda, switching to plastic-free, renewably sourced packaging is an attractive move, with many consumers actively seeking more eco-conscious businesses. Packaging, therefore, has the ability to reflect the values and sustainable ambitions of brands.

Appetite for change

Whilst the pandemic has completely changed business as we know it, it has also elevated people’s concerns around the climate crisis – putting a ‘green recovery’ high on the agenda. It’s clear that food to go and takeaways have been critical for the continuity of business for fine food retailers throughout the pandemic. As lockdown restrictions ease and we adapt to a ‘new normal’, the success of these services will continue to prosper and remain an integral part of business.

Consumers are increasingly willing to hold businesses accountable for their efforts to address environmental concerns. The growing awareness that we must take action to address climate change is prominent. A recent poll by the UN highlights this as 81% of consumers in the UK say that climate change is a ‘global emergency’.

Switching to renewably sourced packaging alternatives is just one small change for businesses but a substantial change to our plastic waste contribution. It may seem like one small piece of a very large puzzle, but its impact should not be underestimated. Every change we make toward a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable future is a step in the right direction in the fight against climate change. Fine food retailers hold the power to drive that change.

Image courtesy of Stora Enso.

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