It would be a committed environmentalist indeed whose antipathy to packaging never wavered at the temptation of a takeaway. While the thought of a greasy container in the residual bin might not be your biggest regret after a night out, the green-minded diner cannot totally overlook the adverse effects of this eminently throw-away product.
Litter is perhaps the obvious part of the problem to sink one’s teeth into. However, placing the focus on litter might, like discarding a semi-consumed kebab, mean we’re only biting off part of the problem – which might in turn lead us to spit out the wrong conclusions.
Of course, food consumed on the go tends to produce litter, and if not picked up by street cleaning services can enter the wider environment and cause harm to plants, animals and people. Plastic is one of the most common types of litter, and as it takes so many years to break down it can be significantly harmful; especially when it makes its way to the oceans, from where it is recoverable only at great expense. For these reasons, many measures so far have focussed on plastic packaging, especially EPS (Expanded Polystyrene), which is sometimes known by the product name Styrofoam.
EPS is cheap, lightweight and durable, making it a staple of takeaway food and drink packaging. Unfortunately, the properties that make it so popular also mean that it is easily blown around and transported long distances as litter. Even when the material is collected for waste management processes there are essentially no viable routes to recycle it economically, although recycling is technically possible. Recent attempts by local authorities to curb use of this troublesome material, and takeaway-related litter in general, have been overturned or so watered down that no real impact has been made.
A load of old rot?
Focussing on litter leads towards solutions that help minimise the impact items have when improperly discarded. For example, the City of Oxford tried to require that takeaway food and drink packaging be made from a materials that were recyclable and compostable, so that if littered they would break down quickly in the environment causing as little harm as possible. Several compostable alternatives to conventional EPS cups and clamshells are available, but bagasse and plant-based PLA (polylactic acid) products dominate the market.
Bagasse is a cardboard-like material made from the fibrous waste product produced when sugarcane stalks are crushed for juice extraction. Its sturdiness and ability to retain heat make it a particularly popular packaging choice for fast-foods – such as burgers and chips – commonly served in clamshell style containers. PLA products are manufactured from corn starch and replicate many of the qualities of their polystyrene counterparts. PLA is especially useful in making transparent containers and is used to produce everything from spoons to sushi trays.
Unfortunately there are limits to the green credibility of these “environmentally friendly” alternatives to EPS. For one thing, because bagasse resembles cardboard and PLA looks like plastic, they confuse users and end up as contamination in these dry recycling streams.
More fundamentally, there’s the question of just how degradable these materials actually are. While both bagasse and PLA are “compostable,” that’s within an industrial-grade process where materials are maintained at 60°C and exposed to powerful enzymes. Under other conditions they degrade less quickly. Analysts estimate that under low-oxygen landfill conditions PLA would take between 100 to 1,000 years to fully decompose. Figures on how they perform when littered are understandably difficult to come by, but compostables seem a far from ideal solution to the problems posed by takeaway packaging.
The anti-litter Holy Grail is a material that is durable as long as it is used as packaging, but which decomposes quickly once discarded or littered. The quest to find something with these properties is proving long and arduous, and current compostables fall far short. Their main benefit occurs when they replace non-recyclable items that would otherwise end up as residual waste, but they can only deliver this benefit if they are properly identified, sorted and treated. If littered, they are little better than EPS.
Take and give
Even if compostables improve, a focus on minimising the impacts on litter may still lead us astray. It doesn’t address the likelihood of littering, or the environmental outcomes of the non-littered majority of the material. Of course, the portion that is littered has a high cost to society and needs to be addressed – but is a switch to biodegradable packaging the answer?
If we apply circular economy principals we would instead seek to reduce resource use, recover as much as possible and recycle it to keep those resources in use. We could start by elevating our ambitions from waste disposal, at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, to waste prevention, right at the top. Financial incentives are the obvious choice to motivate a switch away from disposable packaging and towards reuse because of their proven power to change behaviour, even amongst individuals who don’t prioritise the environment. A small charge on single-use plastic bags has proven very successful in reducing usage wherever one has been implemented and a similar charge, or a reusables discount, could be applied to takeaway packaging.
A refundable deposit might be even more effective as it would provide a greater incentive to bring the container back to be reused or recycled. Such a system could be combined with better quality packaging that can be reused many times, therefore limiting resource wastage and requiring users to make only occasional trips to the deposit refund point. At the end of the packaging’s life, its material composition and product design would facilitate recycling that was both high-quality and cost-effective. Furthermore, giving the packaging a monetary value can be expected to greatly reduce the likelihood of it being littered – and incentivise people to collect and return any that is discarded.
The proof of the takeaway is in the eating, though. Measures to reduce waste in this sector will be more likely to take off if traders are on board with the idea. In order to better understand their attitudes towards packaging, we undertook a quick survey of ten take-away food outlets in and around Bristol’s St Nicholas Market. Filled with quirky stalls selling everything from vintage records to premium sausages, we felt that St Nick’s would be a prime location for finding takeaway traders with an environmental edge. We were not disappointed.
Six of the vendors we spoke to used some sort of compostable packaging, primarily because they were concerned about the ecological impact of EPS containers. Many also mentioned that they wanted to meet the environmental expectations of their customers. Several traders using EPS packaging were sceptical regarding the durability of compostable alternatives.
All traders responded positively when asked whether they would consider serving their takeaways in containers provided by customers. Interestingly, all claimed they already had customers who frequently brought back containers left over from previous purchases, suggesting there is already support for a solution targeted at reuse rather than recovery.
When the chips are down
What might a ‘deposit and reuse’ solution for our environmentally aware local food traders at St Nicks Market look like? Packaging needs to have a value to the customer to ensure that it’s not littered – whether through a deposit refund scheme, or because of the inherent utility of a reusable container. Perhaps St Nick’s could adopt the model of many coffee shops – not to mention Eunomia – and develop a branded reusable container that also promotes reuse. Such a scheme could increase return custom as ownership of the container could create brand loyalty, and an incentive to keep coming back. In addition, a small washing station in the market could allow customers to exchange their container for one that’s freshly cleaned.
So, what’s the take away message? While litter is important, traders, packaging manufacturers, councils and all other interested parties should be considering the full range of end-of-life impacts. If we are to both reduce litter and develop a circular economy then concerted efforts need to be put into extending product lifetimes through reuse, while also minimising both the likelihood of litter and the harm caused by containers ‘lost’ from the resource chain.
Material choice is an important aspect of product design, but durability has two faces: it is a curse in litter, but a blessing in waste prevention. We must develop solutions which embrace the second aspect, rather than solely seeking to mitigate the first, and provide stronger incentives to back what we take away.