Every business is trying to be greener, but for many caterers it's impossible to cut back on disposable items when so many customers are eating and drinking on the move. John Porter looks at what suppliers are doing to solve the problem.
As the new coalition Government sits around the cabinet table planning its strategy to rescue the UK economy, the attention of the world's media is probably on something other than whether David Cameron likes Earl Grey or Nick Clegg is a decaf man. However, what they're sipping their hot drinks from can be expected to become increasingly politically significant.
Both parties in the coalition have strong environmental policies. The LibDems have called for a greater legal onus on local authorities to prioritise waste reduction ahead of reuse - in other words, to use fewer disposables - as well as to increase recycling by businesses. The Conservative manifesto also pledged "a new approach, one which minimises waste and promotes recycling".
For caterers and suppliers, these issues are complex. Balanced against the need to reduce waste is the growth of the coffee bar culture in the UK, along with the widespread habit of eating at the desk, both of which make disposables necessary. On the alcohol side, many police forces and local authorities promote reusable policies, but also discourage the use of conventional glassware to prevent injuries.
With businesses increasingly being judged on their commitment to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda, as well as being under pressure on costs, the disposables industry could be forgiven for thinking that it is being asked to walk a tightrope while juggling at the same time.
The dilemma is summed up by John Young, food service sales and marketing director for supplier Huhtamaki. "Companies are concerned about using greener materials," he says. "In part, that is because of the prospect of stricter environmental legislation, but in their defence many are taking a stand because of their own corporate social responsibility policies."
The basic requirement for a paper cup to be fit for purpose, holding a hot drink for as long as necessary without leaking or burning the customer, means that technology and environmental developments should be the drivers of product development. Added to all that, says Young, "in the economic downturn it has been more complicated, because caterers have also been looking to shave costs."
For a supplier such as Huhtamaki, that means helping customers make appropriate choices. For example, moving from a single-wall cup with a paper holder to prevent burning, to a better-insulated double-wall cup.
"In cost terms, the benefit is that you're not holding multiple stock-keeping units because it just takes one product to do the job. In environmental terms, while consumers won't necessarily think about the cost, they will think about the impact of throwing away both a cup and a holder," Young says.
In its official tips for a greener lifestyle, Friends of the Earth advises employees to encourage companies to use reusable cups and glasses rather than disposables. However, it also promotes the Save a Cup scheme for recycling vending cups.
Save a Cup was established by the vending, food service and plastics industries to collect and recycle used disposable cups. Young acknowledges the success of this scheme, but as the new Government plans its environmental strategy, he insists: "The big issue in terms of the green agenda is the lack of capacity for recycling. There is a clear onus on government and local authorities to produce more recycling facilities. We have to close the loop somehow. There's no point developing a greener product, and asking caters and their customers to separate waste for recycling, if it's still just going into landfill."
Emma Malone marketing manager of Alliance Online, says that while caterers are always looking for the most cost-effective solutions when it comes to buying disposables and packaging products, "goods with 'green' credentials remain at the heart of the majority of procurement policies. Our Environmentally Aware range is proving to be a really big seller this year and remains in growth." Alliance's ecotainer packaging, made from renewable resources, is fully compostable.
Plastico also supplies compostable products, something which may be an issue of concern to some customers looking to store products. The company stresses that the shelf life of its biodegradable products is more than 12 months, comparable to products produced from standard material - providing normal storage conditions are observed and boxes are sealed and stored in a dry environment.
Once a biodegradable product comes into contact with heat, moisture and bacteria the degradation process begins. Since the biodegradable material is processed at temperatures in excess of 200°C, there is no problem using the products to serve hot food or drinks.
Wooden disposables are clearly an environmentally attractive option, assuming caterers can be sure of the source of the materials used. Geoff Page, managing director at Cap-It-All, which produces the GoodLife wood range, says: "As part of the growing demand for environmentally friendly disposables, demand for wooden cutlery (pictured left) has climbed steeply in recent years - so steeply in fact that supply has not always been able to match demand."
Cap-It-All sources its range of forestry-certified wooden cutlery direct from a single supplier - "a move we believe will not only ensure consistent supply, but lower prices as well," Page adds.
Wood is one thing, but how confident can you be in the robustness of a range of disposables made from palm leaves? The Biofriendly brand of disposable plates from Kavis are just that, but company director Chirag Shah stresses that the products are water resistant, leak proof and sturdy enough to be used with a knife and fork, as well as being microwave safe and suitable for hot liquids.
Shah says: "This is one of the most exciting new products we have launched. It is the ideal disposable solution: entirely natural, biodegradable - it can even be disposed of as animal feed - and the source is completely sustainable."
The products are made from the Areca tree, which sheds its leaves continuously. The leaves are collected, pressure washed, scrubbed, sun dried, compressed and then UV-sterilised to produce a chemical free, odourless and hygienic plate.
"Not only is the product itself completely green, the production process is ethical and follows international standards, providing workers with responsible working conditions and fair-wage incomes to support their families. We see this as a product that could set the benchmark for all bio-friendly goods," Shah says.
On the glassware front, the Home Office has commissioned trials of two designs of safer glasses, but with the products unlikely to be available before next year, in the run-up to the World Cup several police forces have started imposing requirements for plastic containers on operators.
Bunzl Catering Supplies has responded with the launch of a new range of CE-marked reusable polycarbonate and polystyrene glasses. Polycarbonate reusable glasses outperform standard glasses both in toughness and cost- effectiveness and have a very similar appearance and weight to traditional glasses, with no impact on the taste of the drink.
The disposables issue is now moving higher up the list of priorities for trade associations. The Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) recently held is first Environmental seminar, which confirmed there is a strong sense that members are willing to do more to encourage recycling of food service packaging items discarded, but also repeated the message to politicians that there is little in the way of a national infrastructure for collection.
Martin Kersh, secretary of the FPA says: "If café operators would like to take this further we'd be happy to facilitate further talks about how we can work together to devise recycling/collections schemes that work for customers, operators and manufacturers."
The British Hospitality Association has announce that it is to launch a Sustainability Forum for members to share experiences and queries on green issues, and to offer advice on reducing usage and costs, and effective reuse and recycling. The date of the first meeting of the forum has yet to be announced - for many in the industry, it can't be soon enough.
Anything that is biodegradable is also compostable, but not all compostable material biodegrades. Confused? Use this glossary of commonly used environmental terms to work out the best solution for catering disposables...
Biodegradable: Material which can be broken down naturally by microorganisms into invisible pieces. Almost all food waste is biodegradable, as is material made from plant fibres, such as paper. However, paper disposables often have coatings or other material added, and may need to be recycled or composted.
Compostable: Products which require a controlled environment to degrade, such as an composting facility where temperature, light and humidity can be regulated. For example, Polylactic Acid (PLA) a plant-based resin used to make clear tumblers and coat paper cups, is a compostable material. The European standard EN 13432 defines compostable products.
Recyclable: A product that can be reprocessed in order to produce a raw material that can be used to manufacture new products. For example, PET, widely used in water bottles and food containers, is the world's most recycled plastic. PET can be recycled up to seven times.
Reusable: A product that can be used again without any alteration to its form, such as a carrier bag.
Sustainable packaging: Packaging that is manufactured in a way that minimises the negative environmental impact, such as avoiding depletion of natural resources.
Source: Huhtamaki and Solo Cup Europe
Alliance Online 0844 499 4300
Bunzl Catering Supplies 01372 736300
Cap-It-All 01925 211490
Huhtamaki 023 9251 2434
Kavis 0870 360 3123
Plastico 020 8646 0456
Save a Cup 01494 510167
Solo Cup Europe 01480 459413