Innovate Blog
The must-ask questions on Sustainable foodservice packaging

Tuesday May 15, 2018

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘How does a foodservice operator identify innovative foodservice packaging solutions that are truly sustainable, when disposed of in their current waste management system?’

And here’s what she told us…

Sustainability Expert – Jo Gilroy Twitter – @JoannaGilroy

I have always felt that a key human quality we should never underestimate is our ability to innovate. I also believe that it’s precisely this quality that we should employ to develop long-lasting solutions for our current sustainability challenges.  The global focus on plastic pollution has sent many businesses and entrepreneurs in the food packaging industry into a frenzy of innovative activity, resulting in a myriad of new products launches with sustainable attributes at the fore. And this is good news – for if we are to create a plastic-free world, then we need to ask ourselves – what new foodservice packaging products can help us achieve it?  What is the innovative super-material of tomorrow?

There has been a flurry of new environmental solution-orientated foodservice products hitting the industry over the last 6-months.  Some are products that have been available for a while but have traditionally taken a backseat in favour of plastic, like paper straws for example.

Others are very recent innovations, like the reCUP™. A double wall paper hot cup with an innovative barrier coating called EarthCoating™, which uses 48 per cent less plastic than a standard PE lined paper cup and is fully recyclable when disposed of in a dedicated paper cup waste stream.

We’ve also seen a surge of interest in reusable cups, which where practical, can replace disposable paper cups that are traditionally PE (plastic) lined. Products made from bamboo, like napkins and tissue paper are also more widely available, along with a whole plethora of new biodegradable products, which are now being marketed to hospitality operators with gusto.

The truth is, we have reached a cross roads in solving the sustainability issues around foodservice packaging, which includes the reduction of plastic pollution. There are credible and long-lasting product solutions now available, that when teamed with responsible waste management, will allow foodservice operators to reduce, reuse and recycle, edging us forward to a truly circular economy.

However, these solutions are sometimes overshadowed by product alternatives, which sound good, but in reality will only serve to pass on the pollution problem.  We must take the time to identify and support credible solutions, otherwise we only create only an illusion of change.

So as a conscientious catering operator, met with product innovation, how is a sensible decision on which products to choose to be reached? Are all these new product solutions really as good as they appear to be?

When I’m approached by customers on this very matter, my answer is simple – ask lots of questions! By taking the time to ask the right questions, delving a little deeper behind any marketing spin, catering operators can equip themselves with the right information to make a diligent decision.

I always keep the wisdom of English journalist and poet, Rudyard Kipling, close at hand: I keep six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When, and How and Where and Who.

Our Rudyard inspired questions should include:  Why is this product better for the environment?  Where is this product manufactured?  Who manufactures this product?  Why has this material been used in this product?  How can I recycle this product?  How long does it take for this product to biodegrade?

We must not become distracted by phrases or words like: environmentally-friendly, closed loop, biodegradable or  carbon neutral.  By themselves, these statements mean very little.

Earlier this month, as Head of Sustainability for a leading distributor in the foodservice industry, I hosted a Sustainable Future Breakfast Forum eagerly attended by many of our national customers.  The hotly debated topic was, understandably, credible solutions for reducing plastic use.  I shared these top tips, which when used together with the right level of questioning, should be a good steer:

  • Identify and remove unnecessary and unrecyclable plastics.
  • Introduce dispensers to encourage a ‘take one’ mentality.
  • Consolidate as much as possible the plastic types used. For example, use either recyclable plastics or compostable ones where appropriate. Mixing and matching prevents either material from being recycled or composted.
  • Thoroughly question plastic material alternatives. Why are they better?  Take a holistic view considering where the product is sourced from, how it is made, and how it will be disposed of.
  • Fact check whether a product is actually recyclable or compostable with your waste management providers.
  • Question biodegradable products. 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 elaborate on what the product will break down into how long it will take, or under what circumstances the break down will occur.
  • Introduce reusable items where they are suitable and will be used.

If we take the time to ask relevant questions, to develop a deeper understanding about the true merits of new products in the marketplace, and to properly understand our plastic alternatives, then as we stand at our sustainability crossroads we will take the most sustainable route.