Tackling takeaway packaging: Beyond the plastic problem

Every day seems to bring us more shocking images of packaging in the environment harming wildlife. Many of us now ask ’what can I do to stop litter reaching the sea?’ Reduce, reuse and recycle is a familiar refrain but what can we do about takeaway packaging? Often it is only used once before being discarded and it can’t be easily recycled. In Fidra’s home town of North Berwick businesses are now leading the way in the search for alternatives, from composting coffee cups to fully recyclable packaging.  Some cafes are even finding it can save money, and in June 2018 the Scottish Government [i] announced funding for communities to help reduce plastic waste. So, could North Berwick go beyond the plastic problem?  

The problem with polystyrene


Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is used in fast food businesses as it’s a cheap and insulating material, but it can cause a number of issues, like littering.   Recent Scotland figures show that 80% of our streets are littered, with 60% of roadside litter recorded as food and packaging related, and 68% as drink containers [ii].  But it isn’t just littering which harms the environment, it is the whole EPS lifecycle. Environmental impacts of EPS production include fossil fuel use and hazardous industrial waste, with evidence of styrene, a potential carcinogen, leaching during use and after disposal [iii]. The low weight of EPS also makes it uneconomical to store and transport for recycling purposes so few facilities exist.  Food contamination is an issue where recycling facilities do exist, as only clean and grease-free EPS can be recycled. Paper and plastic also need to be clean and grease-free in order to be recycled, so how can we avoid food contaminated packaging becoming litter or landfill?  Compostable packaging is one solution as it can be put into food waste collections without the need to be cleaned, and any remaining food in it is also composted.  

Compostable packaging 

Here at Fidra we’ve been looking into replacements for EPS takeaway food packaging and we believe that compostable packaging could be part of the solution. Being a compostable town could benefit the community, the environment and local businesses.  But to make this happen infrastructure, incentives and innovation are needed, which over the last 12 months has all come together.  Edinburgh based food packaging company Vegware launched their ‘Close the Loop’ system in September 2017, and set up collection systems for compostable packaging as a registered waste broker [iv]. Originally on a trial basis in Edinburgh, it has been extended to East Lothian and taken up by two local businesses, long-standing users of compostable packaging Steampunk and The Walled Garden at Archerfield.  The North Berwick Rugby Club is also presently in the process of signing up.  Elly Douglas-Hamilton, Director of Archerfield Estates Ltd has found switching to compostables has changed not just the coffee cups but how they think about business waste: “We have learnt a lot about how we control our waste in the last 6 months and have a long way to go however some great achievements have been made. Working together with other local businesses like Steampunk means that we can share information and ideas and start translating these ideas into practical reality. I hope this is something we can encourage other businesses in doing and help us all to realise that perceived barriers are perhaps not as great as they seem.”  

What next?

There is a ground swell towards more sustainable lifestyles. In East Lothian groups like Plastic Free North Berwick and Sustaining Dunbar are empowering communities and Zero Waste Scotland has several initiatives aimed at reducing waste, including Resource Efficient Scotland which offers free bespoke consultancy to SMEs to reduce waste and cut costs [v].   Scottish recycling, composting and re-use of waste from all sources increased past 60% for the first time in 2016, and food recycling and anaerobic digestion increased 20% from 2015 [vi].  With the involvement of more businesses and the community North Berwick could become one of a number ‘compostable towns’ on the Firth of Forth. By using clearly branded compostable packaging and prominent collection points, Close the Loop can make a substantial difference to the contents of street litter bins, which in North Berwick are believed to have the region’s highest proportion of takeaway food packaging.  Could community composting with food waste and compostable packaging from sports centres and schools also play a part?  Recently on the market is the Hotbin, a small-scale composter, that can process many brands of compostable packaging including those used by some local takeaways [vii]. Placed in strategic sites, Hotbins could provide compost for the likes of North Berwick in Bloom, local parks and school grounds, and even the community as a whole.  There are an increasing number of manufacturers and suppliers of compostable packaging, which is made from a variety of waste materials, commonly from processing corn or potatoes.  Could this also be a new line of business for some of our East Lothian farmers or food processors?  With these exciting times ahead, Fidra is organising an information event for local SMEs in and around North Berwick at the start of 2019, to look at ways to move towards a zero waste North Berwick and the solutions available, including compostable packaging.  If you would like to be involved or find out more about these issues, please visit our webpage or contact info@fidra.org.uk.  


About the Blogger: Dr Clare Cavers is Senior Project Manager at Fidra, working on alternatives to polystyrene and leading on the Best Fishes project on salmon farming. 

[i] https://beta.gov.scot/news/support-to-reduce-single-use-items/

[ii] https://www.keepscotlandbeautiful.org/roadside-litter-campaign/did-you-know/

[iii] Manalacet al (2010) Leaching behaviour of sulfonated polystyrene (SPS) from recycled Styrofoam. International Journal of Environmental Science and Development1(4), 368-370 

[iv] https://www.vegware.com/close-the-loop/info_50.html

[v] https://www.resourceefficientscotland.com/

[vi] http://media.sepa.org.uk/media-releases/2018/scottish-recycling-composting-and-re-use-rockets-past-60-milestone/?utm_source=Update+standard+list&utm_campaign=b06a23abf8-SEPA_Update_18080606_08_2018&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1d4b1dd6b0-b06a23abf8-290498437 

[vii] https://www.hotbincomposting.com/

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