How can the catering industry reduce packaging waste?

When considering the style and type of packaging to be used in the catering industry, we should not lose sight of the fact that packaging is an essential ingredient in the finished product. In our modern world where food may be prepared as a complete meal many miles from where it is to be finally consumed, the packaging is part of the product.

We now take for granted that we will have full access to a wide range of high quality, nutritious foods which are packaged to last for long periods of time and that we will never be short of food or struggle to transport food to the end consumer before it becomes inedible. In the Victorian era this was not the case, the wealthy or those living in the countryside would usually be able to access fresh and nutritious food but working people in the cities would not have this luxury. Their diets consisted of broths, stews and foods which were preserved by drying or pickling due to the difficulties of transporting fresh produce into the cities and keeping it edible which had a detrimental effect on the health of working people. This diet was so poor that by the first world war military authorities found it hard to find able-bodied conscripts because so many working people were ill because of their poor diet. The need to feed the population gave rise to the widespread use of packaging, starting with canning to preserve foods, which continues to this day.

Nowadays, whilst we have different health related food issues, people live a longer and healthier life and packaging and the economic transportation of food have played a part. Packaging waste as a phrase should really only apply in the catering kitchen to the inappropriate, unnecessary or excessive use of packaging products.

Chefs and food technologists do not set out to create waste packaging, it is their remit to create good quality meals or food products for the consumer. Packaging should be considered as part of the product scoping exercise when new meal ideas are being created. Taking as an example of how a product can use different packaging solutions we could look at the humble meat pie. The same pie may be sent to the end user in many ways, unwrapped in trays at chip shops and cafes, wrapped in a polypropylene sleeve for chilled retail sales or frozen and then poly bagged or boxed again for retail.

Focussing on the transportation, storage and the way the end user consumes the product can help to reduce packaging. For instance, if your kitchen is serving burger and fries you could offer your customers a card tray instead of a hinged box, the tray contains less material and less cost. If your customer is taking your product out to eat why not wrap the burger in a greaseproof paper wrap, saving on the cost of materials and if the customer is buying several meals wrapped in greaseproof paper you will save on paper carrier bags due to the reduced bulk. Your end product may be a pastry product or may have an element of grease leakage, in which case, instead of a card box you could look at glassine paper bags. Glassine bags are greaseproof, translucent and 100% compostable, they may well also be cheaper that a card sleeve and a bag. Glassine can be warmed in an oven to 235°C and can be used in a microwave. Finally if your product is delivered or prepared for immediate consumption, as in street food, greaseproof sheets are far better than boxes on the grounds of cost, composability and space in your kitchen.

In conclusion we should not be defensive of packaging as it serves a necessary purpose, however we should be mindful of the wasteful use of packaging. There are many packaging considerations that you can take into account, but ultimately the product and the end user will dictate the packaging used.

John Haken, director at packaging supply specialist WF Denny

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