Catering with kindness

As students become more concerned about their impact on the environment; disposable catering products are more than a throwaway issue

By Simon Fry

As life – for students and everyone else – comes at a faster pace, eating on the go becomes increasingly the norm. The coffee carried from the café and the salad baguette bought from the sandwich shop are part of many students’ daily expenditure, but when both have been consumed, the need for disposal arises. Thankfully, a dazzling array of environmentally-friendly choices exist for the packaging used for such food, solutions which are far from a load of rubbish…

Manchester University’s catering sustainability policy includes an endeavour to minimise waste by promoting ‘hug mugs’ and other reusable takeout options to reduce landfill, a move towards biodegradable packaging and engagement with suppliers to cut down on packaging. Reduce, reuse and recycle initiatives include paper, plastic and can recycling in all outlets – 28 across all sites plus nine residential halls.

Martin Smith, executive chef at the University’s catering department, said: “We source all our packaging products from Tri-Star, everything from cups to takeaway boxes to event catering and are currently buying several hundred thousand units annually. For items like sandwiches, the sandwich company would source their own packaging but we specify within the tender what we want them to use. To move to total biodegradable products will cost an extra £25, 000 per annum, however some of this will be offset by less waste going to landfill and reduced cost in waste charges. We are working towards as eco-friendly a position as possible and hopefully it will all be in place by September 2014.”

Claire Hodge, marketing manager at London Bio Packaging is finding universities are increasingly keen to be kind. “Interest is growing in eco-packaging rather than packaging using materials such as polystyrene, with a number of student unions whose bars and cafes use our bagasse plates, pots for chips and clamshells for food like burgers and fish and chips. White bagasse is made from fibres left over when sugar syrup is extracted from sugar cane. Our biodegradable coffee cups, napkins made from 100% recycled paper and little brown paper bags, also made from recycled paper are also popular.”

For universities such as Manchester, Tri-Star Packaging consider all aspects of conscientious catering; MD Kevin Curran said: “We supply a vast range of eco-friendly packaging and disposables to UK universities, including recycled, recyclable, compostable and biodegradable products. Tri-Star supplies packaging and disposable ranges from sustainable material, including cardboard, bagasse, bamboo, corn starch, responsibly sourced wood, palm and recycled and recyclable PET. Each has its place, based on the waste collection stream in operation. The most environmentally-friendly packaging is that disposed of through the correct waste chain, otherwise its green credentials are wasted. We pride ourselves on our consultative approach and we are working with a number of universities to reduce their packaging waste and divert it away from landfill. Used packaging should be regarded not as waste, but as a resource with value that should be recovered where possible and sent for recycling or composting.”

While items kind to the environment won’t cost the earth, their higher price has been a factor during the recession. “Customers like the idea of eco-friendly products, so requests for them are growing, but this is not always matched by demand and actual sales. The recession has not quelled the desire for environmentally-friendly solutions, but it has dampened sales. The consumer may want eco packaging, but he/she does not want to pay extra for it and our clients often do not want to absorb the cost either.”

Adrian Pratt is marketing manager of Benders Paper Cups, supplied through third parties to universities. He believes that when the kinder option is adopted it must be promoted. “If the effort is being made and the green brief is fulfilled it must be highlighted, which is very easily communicated through branding of the same. Those in the catering and vending industries can promote traceability and accreditation, using all material and evidence supplied by the manufacturers. Make use of QR codes and talk about your environmental policies on the actual packaging itself. If you’re green, whatever the shade, then shout about it!”

Demand is driving product development. “Our Elementi range (of which the Verde design is part) was designed to satisfy the foodservice industry’s need to provide an eco-friendly alternative to standard paper cups. Its inner lining is made from a biopolymer coating derived from products such as corn. The entire process, from tree to cup production, has been created to reduce harmful environmental effects, further supported with the use of water-based inks for the printing of all Benders’ cup designs.”

Conventional packaging uses mixed materials such as card, plastic, foam, films and metals. These may be recyclable if kept dry and separate, but combined and contaminated with food, recycling may be compromised, generally leaving incineration or landfill as disposal options.

Vegware is the UK’s first packaging firm to create a full range of certified compostable catering disposables, providing a practical solution to the environmental issue posed by conventional packaging by creating eco-catering disposables recyclable together with food waste.

All their packaging is plastic-free, low-carbon and made from entirely recycled or annually-renewable plant materials, produced within a sustainable and traceable supply chain with independent compostability certification proving it can break down in less than 12 weeks, complying with the European standard EN13432.

Vegware’s Poppy Bending Beckett said: “The education sector is a really thriving area for us and we work with lots of universities across the country. We help sites to promote the environmental savings they have made by using our products, for example, through custom posters, presentations and case studies. Our environmental consultancy offers full recycling support and tailored eco-audits, supporting corporate social responsibility by quantifying universities’ carbon savings by the kilo for every order. In 2013, our UK customers saved 925 tonnes of carbon, 568 tonnes of virgin materials and diverted 1.5 million tonnes of waste from landfill.”

Vegware’s Green University map shows how its products meet many of the criteria of the points system for the People & Planet Green League, helping universities increase their sustainability and consequently their Green League ranking. Students are encouraged to engage with Vegware which will tweet their university’s green credentials.

Perhaps Vegware’s most unlikely catering disposable is a two-compartment plate made from a fallen areca nut palm leaf gathered from the forest floor in Kerala, India. Hand-pressed in spring water, each is unique.  

The company’s personal touch is appreciated by Annabel Hurst, operations manager retail at the University of Bristol. “The University has carried out compostable waste audits for many years. Results in 2010 showed that 25% by weight of the University’s waste bins was food waste. This led to a business case to introduce food recycling: following on from this, Vegware was also introduced as compostable material. All of this was also driven by proposed changes in legislation whereby biodegradable food may be banned from landfill. Vegware’s product also passed compostable comparability testing with SITA, our waste contractors.”

Planglow is finding universities an increasing part of its business, wherein demand for products varies across the country, according to MD Rachael Sawtell. “There are variations from region to region but our wedges, multi bags and baguette bags are amongst some of the best-selling amongst universities overall, and many use a mix of our brands to differentiate between ranges. Our bloomer packs are very popular with Scottish universities, while our large salad packs and pots are proving very popular across Northern England. In the South our platter boxes are big sellers, especially at universities running summer corporate hospitality programmes.”

Stirling University has sought 100% biodegradable and compostable products. Planglow’s Rosso collection fulfilled these criteria (while increasing sales) while natural packaging and green deli labels enhanced the wholesome, rustic image of the University’s Stir Café where as many products as possible are locally-sourced or fairtrade.

Around 10,000 catering facilities use Planglow products globally, with impressive results coming from California State University’s Chico site, around 90 miles north of Sacramento. Although compostable packaging costs around 10% more than what had been previously used, Corinne Knapp, retail manager for the University’s Associated Students Dining Services, said, “Since making the switch, sales have increased 17%. I did a one-year look at the fiscal year last year of all of the products used to contain our ‘grab ‘n’ go’ food. Taking the per-pound weight of all added up to 2,846 pounds of packaging. Now, everything going out for our ‘grab ‘n’ go’ programme is compostable; I don’t believe every single bit of it goes into the compost bin but a good portion does.”