04 January 2019, 10:30 AM
  • Owners of food businesses love to trumpet their eco-credentials, says Sally-Jayne Wright, but is avoiding plastic do-able?
TRENDWATCH: Say no to plastic

Emotions ran high after the BBC aired David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II documentary in 2017. Viewers couldn’t believe the scale of pollution – a sea turtle’s nose sporting a plastic straw; albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic. People questioned not just single-use straws but plastic use in general.

WHAT WAS THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE?
Defra is consulting on a proposal to ban plastic straws by the end of October 2019. At the time of going to print, it is also reviewing the introduction of a plastic bottle deposit return scheme, promised end of 2018 subject to consultation. In Norway and Germany such policies have had success rates of over 90%.

WHAT IS THE FOOD INDUSTRY DOING ABOUT PLASTIC?
Action is voluntary: many retailers interviewed for this feature no longer sell plastic straws nor water bottles; as part of plans to eliminate unnecessary use, Waitrose stopped using disposable, polyethylene-lined cups for cardholders’ free coffees.

I’VE HEARD BLACK PLASTIC IS VERY HARD TO RECYCLE.
Yes, the infra-red sorting machines can’t see it and waste collectors get hardly anything for it. Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Tesco have joined forces to find a solution. Waitrose, Aldi and Quorn plan to remove black plastic from some or all own-brand products.

WHY DO WE NEED PLASTIC ANYWAY?
Because it’s hygienic and brilliant at extending shelf life and protecting fragile items. We mustn’t forget that food waste, too, has environmental implications.

CAN’T WE JUST RECYCLE EVERYTHING?
Not easily and without confusion. Each local authority does its own thing as do Scotland and Wales. Of the UK’s 350-plus councils, only 17% collect plastic film and more than one in five (21%) won’t recycle plastic pots. Even packaging companies are frustrated; they’ve adopted the phrase ‘recyclable where local schemes exist’. Then there’s the challenge of where to send it. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled domestically (Green Alliance); a year ago, China announced it no longer wants our rubbish.

WE’VE INTRODUCED 100% BIODEGRADABLE PLASTIC BAGS IN STORE. ANY GOOD?
They need sunlight exposure to biodegrade. Buried in landfill, they will take as many years to decompose as ordinary plastic. Try selling cloth bags instead. Used at least 500 times, they’re better than paper or plastic.

ANY ALTERNATIVE TO CLINGFILM? WE USE SO MUCH.
Restaurateur Skye Gyngell uses beeswax wraps. Made from cotton and beeswax, they are washable, reusable and ultimately compostable. After discovering her kitchen team used 3,600km of clingfilm in a year, she began using both wraps and labelled, lidded containers.

Cheesemonger Jen Grimstone-Jones of Cheese Etc. won’t make the swap: “Some people are allergic to bees’ products and it would alter the taste of the cheese.” Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy is put off by the need to boil-wash it to avoid cross-contamination: “Boiling has environmental impact and how durable will it be if constantly re-boiled? Plus you can’t display cheese in it.”

WE CAN’T REUSE PACKAGING FOR FRESH FOOD DELIVERIES BECAUSE OF POSSIBLE CROSS-CONTAMINATION. ANY SOLUTIONS?
How about WoolCool – compostable wool wrapped in recyclable plastic – as used by Riverford Organic Farmers. Not everyone likes it, however. Online retailer Drogo Montagu of The Fine Food Specialist said, “The wool couldn’t maintain the cool chain and it was too timeconsuming to layer it in boxes.”

Andy Swinscoe feared that, in warm weather, the wool’s faint lanolin whiff would taint his wax paper-wrapped cheeses; the makers claim the only aroma is of a new, pure wool sweater. Andy uses shredded timber from Wood Wool UK for his insulation.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO POLYSTYRENE FOAM?
There are corn and sorghum-based alternatives to polystyrene foam chips. Some retailers warned us they turn to mush if they get damp. When buying eco-friendly packing materials, look for the words ‘home-compostable’. Not all biodegradable plastic is compostable, but all compostable plastic is biodegradable.

HOW CAN WE DO OUR BIT?
Educate yourself, staff and customers and get them on-side. Make time to comment on Defra consultation papers. Blog about the importance of being eco-friendly and add a recycling locator widget to your website by emailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

AND ON A DAY-TO-DAY BUSINESS, WHAT SMALL CHANGES CAN WE MAKE?
Favour glass or aluminium rather than plastic, and larger containers over small; commission a branded reusable coffee cup; start your own plastic bottle deposit scheme, and consider selling canned water (canowater.com). Could you offer your pies in pottery dishes or the customers’ own? At Cheese Etc a few regulars bring in their own mugs and containers for soup and cheese.

IS THE SAY-NO-TO-PLASTIC TREND HERE TO STAY?
We predict public interest will soon wane. As we saw with the levy on plastic bags, it will need top-down legislation to effect change. We urgently need a coordinated national recycling policy. It won’t be easy or convenient, but protecting the seas should be instinctive, not a passing fad.