Single use plastic: What are the alternatives for takeaways?

The UK Government has announced a ban on single use plastics from October, but what is a small takeaway or restaurant owner to use instead?

The answer is one of the many alternatives made out of materials like sugarcane or wood, paper and metal. The next question is whether these materials are a viable and economic alternative?

Metal is the strongest alternative to single use plastic. The initial cost of metal products is high, but they can be recycled and reused. Enterprising takeaways and restaurants have implemented their own reuse schemes for metal containers (BBC). The customer can return the tin container for cleaning and reuse. In a similar way to reusable cups, the trouble with these schemes is usually the end consumer. They might forget to return the container or lose it. We consumers have to do our part too. 

Single use wooden cutlery and bamboo cutlery has been sold for a number of years. You can find disposable wooden cutlery online for as little as 5p per unit. This is similar in price to disposable plastic cutlery. The quality of these products is variable, as with most products.

Kraft paper deli or takeaway boxes are a cheap alternative to single use plastic, so they are popular. They fold flat for transportation and storage and are relatively lightweight. Paper boxes are perfect for snacks and bakery items, but what about greasy takeaways? To solve this issue, manufacturers add coating to paper boxes to stop them leaking. The problem lies in what kind of coating is used. If it is polyethylene (PE), a type of petroleum based plastic, the recycling of the paper carton has to be done by a specialist. If it is polylactic acid (PLA), it is biodegradable and can be composted. PLA is made of plant based materials like corn or sugarcane and is sometimes called bioplastic. It is as good as PE at waterproofing according to Pack My Food and is thermally efficient too. 

Bagasse is a biodegradable product made from the waste fiber after extracting sugar from sugar cane. The word Bagasse literally meant waste or rubbish, from the French ‘bagage’ and the Spanish ‘bagazo’ (Britannica). It has recently come to mean the debris or residue from processing plants like olives or sisal and sugar cane. Bagasse clamshell boxes for takeaways look almost exactly the same as the traditional Styrofoam clamshell box. Styrofoam is made from polystyrene, another type of plastic. It is not biodegradable, but it can be recycled into foam pellets. This needs to be done by specialists like Foam Equipment & Consulting. Bagasse on the other hand is biodegradable. This might make it a viable alternative to single use plastic if the price is right. Bagasse takeaway boxes, plates, bowls and cutlery are available but they are more expensive. Bargasse boxes can cost as much as 20p-30p per unit, as opposed to 11p per unit for plastic boxes. 

While this may not seem a big difference, it is for a small business. Small businesses in the UK are under real pressure. Energy costs are significant for a small business that uses a lot of energy to run cookers and deep fat fryers. Consumers are also buying less takeout due to the economic crisis. Finding packaging that is the right quality and the right price takes time. Time that a small business owner might not have to spare.

So there are alternatives to single use plastic but it is going to ask more of small businesses that are already under strain. As consumers, we need to support small local businesses whenever we can. For more information on our sustainable business community, and how we can help, visit our membership pages.

Annette Clubley

Annette is a keen wildlife conservationist, mindful of sustainability and our impact on the environment. Outside of work, family is her focus and she loves teaching the next generation to enjoy the outdoors.