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EGreen helps caterers get to grips with sustainable packaging

10th May 2024 - 04:00
Caterers are being bombarded by a confusing variety of eco messages around sustainable packaging and tableware. Caroline Wiggins, chief executive of eGreen International, a manufacturer and distributor of sustainable packaging explains all.

We live in a changing world where protecting the environment is high up on the agenda of government, business, and consumers. It is however a very confusing landscape where packaging companies increasingly market their products and produce with a variety of eco messages.

We are all familiar with the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, but with so much labelled as biodegradable, recyclable, compostable or ecofriendly, what happens to the waste? Where are goods produced? How much energy is used to make and transport them or indeed what kind of energy is used, nuclear? Fossil fuel? For caterers wanting to improve the sustainability of their operation, you can quickly see that as you ask one simple question others come to the surface.

A typical example is the paper cup. Widely used in catering operations paper is perceived by many to be a better and a more environmentally friendly material than plastic. But is that true?

Paper comes obviously from trees; some responsible producers have FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, which means the wood and paper come from responsibly managed sources that are being replaced.

In addition, paper cups have a plastic lining, so they are water resistant. The cup is composed of two materials which makes recycling more complicated. Some cups will feature an aqueous lining, but the barrier must have some binding agent which raises the questions what chemicals are used in this process? Quickly you can begin to understand how complex the issue is.

Many large catering buyers have now started to ask for a lifecycle analysis (LCA) which takes account of many of these elements, and we believe it will soon become a prerequisite for the carbon footprint and the LCA to be specified and included on product labelling.

It is important for caterers to seek reassurance that any paper products they use come with an accreditation, and that environmental messages are supported with evidence and third-party certification. So, as with the earlier example, all wooden products should have an FSC accreditation.

My company eGreen, one of the largest suppliers of wooden cutlery, stirrers, skewers, and other wooden accessories, makes sure factories are visited and audited regularly, which together with the fully certified FSC wood. We feel this gives customers confidence they are buying from a reliable source.

An alternative to wood is plant-based cutlery, which is both home and industrial compostable. Caterers using the product can compost it with their food waste and don’t need to sort or allocate it to any particular waste stream. In busy catering environments this is a huge plus – and one eGreen’s partners value.

In addition, the raw material comes from agricultural waste so there is no issue regarding the replanting of trees or forest management.

Cutlery is not the only area needing consideration. Selecting single-use plastic tumblers is probably even more complicated, with choices ranging from the economic polypropylene Flexy-Glasses, which can be recycled to TruGreen r-PET tumblers which can also be recycled and are made with 100% post-consumer waste. The latter are the ultimate Self-Destruct cups which include a unique technology that means if the cups escape the recycling steam they can break down in the open air.

Whatever you choose we recommend checking what recycling facilities are in place. Either on site, through local council collections or independent waste management companies.

For caterers looking for a truly circular approach, then recycled sunflower oil is the latest and most exciting development in sustainable packaging. It is something that we, at eGreen, are making mainstream through our new VeriGreen tumblers.

In a UK first, we use material that comes from recycled sunflower oil and it is sourced mainly from the hospitality industry. Importantly, these tumblers are certified by the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification or ISCC which, like FSC, certifies the whole chain of custody.

As the oil comes from plants rather than fossil fuels it has the added benefit of reducing the carbon footprint of the product and if caterers are ISCC registered they can offset the cups with a carbon credit. The final piece of the jigsaw is the cups can also be collected and recycled. Moving away from fossil fuels offers huge benefits and ticks a lot of boxes for operator and consumers.

Using plant oil rather than fossil fuel, combining a reduced carbon footprint and recyclability is the dream ticket. Many companies have carbon emissions targets, so selecting products like this can help them towards these goals and ultimately can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Kitchen waste aside, recycled marine plastic is another material making its way into catering tableware. Plastic has been flagged as one of the biggest causes of pollution in the ocean and fishing nets are cited as the most significant problem.

To collect and recycle the nets into something useful is excellent progress. Products made using this material can be printed with a message or logo providing caterers with a way to promote their sustainability journey and benefits to consumers.

Encouragingly, there is large investment going into infrastructure to simplify the recycling process. One example is a new plant in Tyneside that can recycle all plastics. This gives hope to the foodservice industry as an increasing number of products will be recycled more easily.

Where caterers can store their used single-use items or products like trays at the end of their life, they can collate a critical mass of product that can then be collected and upcycled into a new product.

This has already been successfully shown by a major mass market operator recently which used a large volume of single-use tumblers it had collected that were upcycled into benches.

While caterers can purchase and use products that have less packaging, it is none the less a reality that the demand for sustainable packaging is growing.

It is vital that caterers begin to look more seriously at the materials they select, check they are correctly certified by a recognised third party and consider the end-of-life strategy for the products they use.

Sadly, there isn’t a one size fits all or single solution that will solve all our environmental problems in one go, it’s important to remember any sustainability journey takes time but achieving our goals is possible if each buying decision seeks to bring a positive change for the world around us.

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Written by
Edward Waddell