How the UK Is Tackling Plastic Waste in Carryout Food

Plant-based compostable plastics are one approach that could help restaurants go green and appeal to environmentally conscious customers.

  • Carryout foods are often packaged in non-recyclable, non-compostable plastic, leading to excess waste that’s bad for the environment.
  • Plant-based compostable plastics looks, feels and performs like traditional plastic but is far less damaging to the planet.

Related: Why restaurant packaging is more important than ever

By Ashley Harris

Over the past nearly two years, Americans have increased their spending on carryout food as a result of lockdowns and other factors. Despite easing restrictions, carryout popularity is set to remain strong. But carryout and other convenience foods can have a huge impact on waste. Not only do carryout orders fuel food waste, delivery and to-go food items often rely on plastic to be transported from restaurant to living room.

With new proposals in many countries to ban plastic plates, cutlery and cups, the food industry needs to adapt and adopt new, more sustainable practices for their off-premise offerings. The United States has been slow to try these new approaches, but some lessons can be learned from the UK’s restaurant industry. From wooden forks to food banks, here are several important ways that delivering food can be made more sustainable and produce less waste.

Plastic-free packaging. By now, we all know how bad single-use plastic is. When ordering from popular food delivery apps or websites, consumers are sometimes given the choice to opt out of cutlery to reduce the use of unnecessary disposable items. Similarly, even if cutlery is needed, it is sometimes wooden to avoid single-use plastic.

But beyond cutlery, food packaging needs more attention. Did you know that a cardboard pizza box cannot be recycled in many U.S. communities if they have oil residue and grease on them? They could “contaminate” all the recycling bins, meaning everything in that load ends up in normal waste.

Most takeaway coffee cups, or any containers for transporting liquids or wet foods, contain a thin, plastic interior coating to prevent leaking and soaking through. The coated layer is hard to separate from the cardboard outer layer, and therefore it has to go in general rubbish as well.

Related: Eco-friendly strategy turns green into gold at Earth Bread + Brewery

Some “green” restaurants are now using plant-based compostable plastics, like Vegware. Made from plants, sustainable packaging like this looks, feels and performs just as well as traditional plastic but is far less damaging to the planet. However, plant-based plastics need the right conditions to break down. For example, in the UK, Countrystyle Recycling and Envar Composting have partnered with Vegware to launch collections for compostable food service disposables.

This is one possible solution for to-go restaurants, but what about carryouts? The end-life of packaging here still remains with the consumer, who normally doesn’t have the facilities to compost these materials at home. A solution could be a recycling scheme where customers are able to return their used carryout packaging to the restaurant so they can be recycled properly. This strategy could include incentives like discounts on the next order or a loyalty scheme.

With plastic items from carryout food and drink dominating the litter in the world’s oceans, restaurant operators need to find smart, sustainable solutions to food containers and transporting food and drink, and the increasing demand for compostable containers, plastic-free packaging and wooden cutlery is a step in the right direction.

Reducing Food Waste. While carryout orders increased during the pandemic, the UK’s Trussell Trust reported a staggering 42% increase in the number of food parcels. So, addressing food waste in the industry is important in creating a more sustainable and equal community.  Although food retailers, producers and manufacturers in the UK have reduced food waste by 17%, more could be done to redistribute food that may otherwise be wasted.

With food banks seeing increasing demand, unopened, in-date food can be donated to help those who require these services. This doesn’t just have to be groceries, either. From one-off donations—if sales aren’t great one day—to regular weekly contributions, Trussell Trust provides a service to help individuals and businesses find their closest food bank.

Alternatively, food waste can be reduced by using apps like Too Good To Go. These innovations mean that restaurants and cafes can sell leftover food at a discounted rate for customers to enjoy and to help avoid food waste.

Ashley Harris started her career in hospitality over 10 years ago and has a degree in Global Masters in Management. She is passionate about innovations in the hospitality and food sector and is looking to connect with other professionals in the industry. Follow her on Twitter: @ashley_harris91.