Can you ever purge single use plastic?

Clear Plastic CupsThe reduction of single-use plastic is all over the news at the moment. The government want us all to take steps to reduce the amount of plastic items we use once, and throw away into landfill, never to be seen again.

Various ideas have been publicised, such as deposit schemes were returning a plastic drink bottle would give the consumer a small refund, and the bag for life scheme which is popular in our supermarkets. However, all of these incentives are intended for the domestic customer, and not a lot of information for those of us in hospitality has made the news. What’s on the cards for the catering industry and what can we do to increase our eco-friendly credentials?

Disposing of the disposable

In the world of hospitality, single-use plastics are everywhere. Fast food and fast lifestyles rely on plastic cutlery, polystyrene plates, drinking straws and plastic coffee shop cups to keep customers moving. We can’t suddenly demand that everyone stand in our shops until they’ve finished their entire latte or sandwich, but neither can we afford to provide each customer with bone china to take away. The sad fact is that One Poll’s market research shows that 74% of takeaway customers don’t even use the single-use plastic items which they’re given, they get chucked straight in the bin. What a waste of your money!

Perhaps one of the biggest offenders is the NHS. A Freedom of Information request discovered that they get through 120 million plastic cups every year. By their own admission, while plastic cups are sometimes the only sanitary option, there are plenty of places where a traditional stoneware alternative would be perfectly acceptable. Two NHS trusts have implemented the use of china crockery, which is a slow start, but shows that they’re willing to change. Can we all make the same commitment?

What can we do?

You may have heard of a scheme popular in coffee shops, giving customers a discount for bringing in their own reusable cup and offering a discount to those who do. While this clearly wouldn’t work in a fine dining restaurant, it’s a popular scheme with coffee shops who would normally be providing cups which would otherwise be condemned to landfill by the end of the day, it might be one way those of us involved in quick eats could implement the change.

The eco-friendly alternative products which have started to emerge are well worth investigating. You can now get biodegradable items which look and behave just like plastic but are actually made from an earth-friendly alternative. Companies such as Biopac supply “plastic” cups which can be composted, because they’re actually made of biodegradable cornstarch, which will break down completely when it’s served its purpose. The same starch-based material can be used to make “plastic” cutlery, and with no difference in performance, these plant-based products will go a long way to getting rid of single-use plastic items.

As purchasers, there are steps we can take to encourage change higher up. Next time you’re ordering for your business, ask your supplier if they’d take back unwanted packaging for recycling, or would they be willing to provide your order in reusable containers such as wooden crates rather than plastic wraps. If they won’t, find out why, or take your business to someone who will.

If you’re interested in making your catering business a more sustainable one, there are several organisations which can help. The Sustainable Restaurant Association started in 2010 and works with its members to bring down waste and increase sustainability, there’s plenty of advice on the website of the Nationwide Caterers’ Association and the British Hospitality Association.

One Poll’s research found that 49% of customers would switch to a different caterer if they knew that business wasn’t going to be using single-use plastic items. Can you afford to be one of the businesses which miss out?