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The pandemic has challenged a lot of the ways we do things, and large scale on-site catering has been subject to more change than most. For some, this has meant the logistical challenge of delivering meals to residents at a distance from a central kitchen, and alongside the physical distribution, this has brought about the need to procure packaging for hot meals.

I was asked to review the packaging costs for a solution put in place very quickly as a result of the pandemic, a solution which had tried to balance expediency, cost and care for the environment. As always, our objective is to look at the bigger picture and the processes involved, but in doing that, some hard questions had to be asked.

The framework for review was the application of the waste hierarchy. (see diagram below)

The approaches to waste which offer least environmental impact are those at the top, and the ‘pre-Pandemic’ process – crockery, cutlery and dishwasher – fits well with this.

The packaging solution was to pay a premium price for a ‘recyclable and compostable’ food box, believing that those credentials would mitigate the environmental impact at the ‘recycling’ level.

Once we understand processes, we can often shed new light on procurement, and that was certainly the case here, as it is unlikely that the boxes would be recycled or composted. Food contamination from gravies and sauces would be extensive, so it is unlikely the local authority would have the facility to clean them, fit for recycling. Energy from Waste, or even landfill is a much more likely destination.

Composting, too is unlikely – as yet, there is very little industrial composting capacity in the UK.

The recycling industry has made great strides over recent years, and some of the impacts are good. Separating food waste is often presented as a way to reduce cost, but perhaps it is more significant because the lack of food in the main bin means that more other waste can be recycled because it doesn’t become contaminated.

The industry has even found a way to recycle disposable coffee cups (the problem is the plastic waterproof membrane), but it comes at a cost – full recycling is forecast to cost Costa approaching £1m per annum, and to date, only a fraction of Britain’s 2.5 billion cups are recycled each year.

Too often, there remains a dilemma, whether procuring stationery or cleaning materials – should you pay more for a product with lower environmental impact – and will that product perform as effectively as the one it replaces?

Our 360 degree review recommended different packaging, and while it may not be any easier to recycle, it is made from recycled materials, and comes at a significantly lower cost. We can leverage our extensive network of suppliers to meet your environmental and financial objectives too.

Article by: Martin Wallis

As seen in Issue 5 of The Bottom Line