Innovate Blog
Sustainable Future: Why we must ask robust questions of single-use food packaging marketed as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘plastic-free’

Tuesday December 31, 2019

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

Operators providing popular and profitable on-the-go food dishes are catering for a generation of customers that want the convenience and flexibility of take-out options, without contributing to the problem of plastic waste littered in our environment.

This isn’t a new requirement, but one that’s been gathering pace in line with a raft of forthcoming governmental legislation on single-use packaging, intense media scrutiny and increased consumer awareness. It’s understandable then, that operators in the catering and hospitality industry are grabbing at sustainable food packaging alternatives – fast.

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 an unlikely result.

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.

In 2020, it’s imperative that we 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 will always aim to fully understand the implications of bringing a new food packaging alternative to our customers when moving from a current product to a ‘sustainable’ option. This is particularly the case with products that claim they are ‘biodegradable’ or ‘plastic-free’.

Of course, food packaging that offers a simple way through the complexities of legislation and environmental concerns are of great interest to us, but we will always ensure that claims about materials types and end of life solutions are tested and proven.

We provide tools and training to equip our sales and purchasing teams with the knowledge and resources to help our customers make informed choices on buying sustainable products.

At Bunzl Catering Supplies we are committed to:

  • Sourcing products that offer a range of sustainable solutions
  • Providing factually based information on material substrates
  • A clear internal and external communication policy under the Sustainable Future programme
  • Helping customers make informed choices on sustainable products
  • Supporting customers to promote consumer awareness on end-of-life disposal
  • Working with Suppliers to reduce transit packaging
  • Promoting controlled dispensing systems to minimise waste

We offer our customers a range of products with sustainable attributes. We have a diverse range on offer, from fully recyclable, those which contain a percentage of recycled content, and fully compostable. We carry a range of compostable products which are certified EN13432 and paper and card-based products which are FSC and PEFC certified.

Our advice to operators in the catering and hospitality industry is to take the time to question sustainable food packaging alternatives that look too-good-to-be-true, especially when a product claims to be ‘biodegradable’ or ‘plastic-free’.  If in doubt, ask us. We will work with you to find the answers and match your needs with the right food packaging products.

As part of our Sustainable Future programme, we work closely with our customers to ensure that only credible, sustainable food packaging alternatives with viable end-of-life solutions are introduced to their operation.  If you’d like the benefit of our experience in this area – we’d be very happy to hear from you.


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