Alternatives to plastic food packaging

With the plethora of articles written recently about packaging waste, there is a genuine desire throughout society to both understand the uses of packaging and the best methods of recycling the end of life packaging.

For most caterers the greatest concerns will be over the use and recyclability of food packaging. Packaging for food products has two primary purposes, firstly the packaging is there to preserve and transport raw ingredients to the caterer. The second purpose is to enable the finished product to be presented to and consumed by the customer. For their part, customers rightly want to know that care has been taken by the caterer to choose the most easily recycled packaging. This concern from customers is likely to influence their choice of caterer.

Alternative choices

Customer focused packaging can be split between serve over for immediate consumption for food on the go, and serve over for home preparation. When caterers are serving for immediate consumption, it should be possible to use solely compostable or recyclable packaging. Food such as burgers or subs can be packaged in paper wraps or chicken nuggets can go into paperboard high lid cartons. Meals with a more fluid consistency, such as curry and rice can be packaged in bagasse trays or hinge lidded boxes. Smoothies and other drinks should be served in a PET cup or in a recycled PET (RPET) cup, if available. Straws should be paper and a growing range of colours are now available. Hot drinks can be served in paper cups, the majority of which have a thin polythene (PE) liner but the cup can still be recycled in most paper recycling facilities. The sip through plastic lids for coffee cups are also recyclable.

If you require cutlery or stirrers, wooden or recyclable products are available. Bioplastics are very rarely composted when used as cutlery and may be a pollutant in recycling terms. Instead of plastic carrier bags an alternative paper carrier bag or block bottom grab bag are a must. By using these products the caterer is able to reduce the environmental impact of the meal, with all the wood and paper products being compostable or recyclable and plastics being recyclable.

Weighing up the costs of alternatives

There is a higher cost to using compostable and recyclable packaging but there may well be a cost involved in ignoring the wishes of customers even more so if a nearby competitor takes up the challenge.

Where caterers are either preparing meals for consumption much later in the day or for storage in a customer’s fridge, the choice of packaging is not as clear cut. Products such as cooked meats and bacon need a protective sheet to prevent them drying out or sticking to other wraps such as greaseproof paper. Cheese is similarly affected and will leech fat through many types of paper or board packaging. Both of these food groups benefit from being wrapped in a thin HDPE plastic sheet prior to packing into a paper box or bag. HDPE film is readily available with a thickness of around 8-10 microns which is 60% less plastic than clear polypropylene sheets which are often used.

With raw meat, poultry and fish products there is a need for a leak-proof pack. For serving counters the current solution of a 10-12 micron HDPE bag is probably the most sensible solution but like the HDPE sheets the only end route is landfill or incineration. Raw meat, poultry or fish served prepacked would be best packed on a clear polypropylene or PET tray with a heat sealed film lid. If the film and the tray is robust enough all statutory information and advertising could be printed on the lidding film cutting out a cardboard sleeve or box. Greengrocers can go back to paper bags for most produce, as can cake shops and sandwich bars.

It is very likely that the government will eventually start to tax plastic takeaway containers. The food industry must be ready for this. Fortunately environmentally sustainable packaging is readily available, if you know what you’re looking for.

By John Haken, director at biodegradable packaging company WF Denny

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