Innovate Blog
Sustainable Future: How can we ensure we embed only credible, sustainable single-use food packaging solutions into the catering and hospitality industry?

Friday January 10, 2020

An Innovate blog by Justin Turquet – Head of Sustainability for Bunzl Catering & Hospitality Division.

This week, a leading news article by BBC News has warned that consumer pressure to end plastic packaging in shops could actually be harming the environment, according to a report by  a cross-party Parliamentary group. Businesses are swapping to other packaging materials which are potentially even worse for the environment, prompted by concern from shoppers about the impact of plastic waste in the oceans.

The report from Green Alliance, called Plastic Promises, says the consequences of using new materials have not been properly assessed. Its spokeswoman, Libby Peake, told BBC News: “A lot of shops are selling packaging described as biodegradable or compostable. In fact, the items might only be composted in an industrial composter – and, even then, some items might not be fully digested.”

The report says: “Over 80% of consumers think biodegradable or compostable plastic is environmentally friendly, but there is little understanding of what the terms mean and how the material should be dealt with.”

The BBC News article supports Bunzl Catering Supplies’ recent Innovate blog looking at the same issue, titled: Why we must ask robust questions of single-use food packaging marketed as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘plastic-free’

The blog acknowledges that in the catering and hospitality industry, there’s a temptation to jump at quick and apparently perfect sustainable solutions, introducing packaging labelled as ‘biodegradable’ for example or replacing PE lined paper cups with hot cups marketed as ‘plastic-free’. But in both these instances, positive environmental change is far from guaranteed.

The term ‘biodegradable’ only means that a product is made from a biological source (such as paper or plants) and will break down over time.  It does not state what the product will break down into, how long it will take, or under what circumstances the break down will occur.

The lack of clarity from distributors about the materials used in ‘plastic free’ products and how they are manufactured is concerning, it is not clear that they are free of polymers.  Furthermore, possible unintended consequences such as producing micro-plastics or higher rates of littering need to be understood before we offer these to our customers.

Our advice to customers therefore is to make sure they ask robust questions to identify and embed credible, long-lasting packaging solutions, that when teamed with responsible waste management, will allow operators to better reduce, reuse and recycle.

On our customer’s behalf, Bunzl Catering Supplies engages in this robust dialogue with manufacturers and distributors who want to bring sustainable food packaging to market. We ensure that we fully understand where and how new products are made, which materials (including plastics) are being used, and which waste stream they are designed to be disposed in.

We speak to our customers regularly about the confusion that sits with the term biodegradable – and why we must all be careful that we understand what this term actually means. It is very easy to understand the sudden demand and the appeal of biodegradable plastic.  It sounds environmentally friendly.  The very term, biodegradable, strongly suggests that the material will just disappear after use but there is no clarity over how long the material will take to break down, in what conditions and critically what the material will break down into.

What muddies the waters even further is that when it comes to plastics, the term biodegradable is often used interchangeably with the term bio-based.  Though connected, the two are not the same.  Bio-based refers to the raw material source of the plastic.  If a plastic is bio-based this means that the material has been produced from a biological source, such as plants or other types of renewable agricultural, marine or forestry materials, rather than the traditional petro-chemical source for plastics. However, bio-based does not necessarily mean biodegradable.

Biodegradability alone does not have the ability to undo today’s damaging plastic legacy.  Smarter, more ecologically minded material design must still be coupled with smarter recycling systems so that all bio based, biodegradable materials can continue to be a resource after use.

In 2019, Bunzl Catering Supplies created five factsheets designed to answer the most commonly asked questions on single-use packaging and sustainability, these factsheets provide a set of clear and simple responses to important questions where misinformation or confusion currently exist.

The five questions addressed on these factsheets include: What makes a disposable packaging product recyclable? What is compostable packaging and is it a sustainable choice? What is biodegradable packaging and is it a sustainable choice? What is the most sustainable choice – compostable or recyclable packaging? And finally, are all paper cups recyclable?

To any customers reviewing their food packaging ranges in 2020, we suggest reading these factsheets first, taking your time to ask robust questions about sustainable alternatives – and of course talking to us.  Our sales teams can share the benefit of their expertise and give access to a number of other dedicated sustainability resources to give you a clear and unbiased overview of your practical, sustainable food packaging choices.

The government published its resources and waste strategy in December 2018 and has conducted initial consultations on three policies: extended producer responsibility for packaging; introducing a deposit return system for drinks bottles; and bringing in greater consistency for recycling and waste collections. Bunzl Catering Supplies is talking with its customers now on how incoming legislation will affect caterers and hospitality operators in 2020.  For more information – please give us a call today.

Further reading: The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) comments via the Footprint Sustainable Responsible Business website Beware the Miracle Packaging Claims.