Plastic takeaway packaging – how to ditch disposables

Takeaways often come in plastic food containers with disposable utensils. They're a big part of the plastic pollution in our waste system – and in our seas.
By Paul Quinn    |      Published:  08 Feb 2019    |      9 minute read

“Is this a lasting treasure – or just a moment's pleasure?”

I think Carole King was talking about something else in that old love song. But you might ask a similar question about takeaway meals.

Fast food makes a lot of people happy, but why is it sold in plastic takeaway packaging that could last forever, polluting our planet for generations to come?

Takeaway food is more popular than ever. Almost all cafes and restaurants now offer a takeout and/or delivery option for meals, snacks and drinks – far more than they did 50 years ago.

That increase has coincided with the easy availability of cheap, plastic food containers, cutlery and other utensils.

It’s sometimes called disposable tableware: everything from paper plates to tin foil trays, see-through microwaveable tubs and foam burger boxes, and all kinds of single-use forks, knives, spoons, stirrers and straws.

The world is literally awash with it all nowadays, and more and more of it is plastic.

Even if some of these items are made from recyclable plastics, they rarely get recycled. And the sheer volume has made the whole idea of disposables clearly unsustainable.

It can’t be a good idea if the box that holds your meal for a few minutes ends up poisoning the ocean for centuries.

Plastic waste, including disposable coffee cups, left on top of a public bin
Takeaway packaging often gets binned or ends up polluting our environment
Credit: Pixabay

Billions of disposables thrown away

In the UK alone we use and throw away billions of disposable food containers and utensils every year, according to a new report [PDF] by Eunomia for Friends of the Earth.

And as we know, disposing of them doesn’t mean they disappear. A lot of disposables are landfilled, blown or washed into waterways or end up as yet more plastic pollution in our rivers and oceans.

The report, 'Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution', reveals, in many cases viable alternatives already exist – like replacing disposable plastics with reusable portable containers and utensils wherever possible. That’s the best way to change our inherently wasteful single-use, throwaway culture.

As the report makes clear though, this cultural shift will need urgent and positive action by government, manufacturers and retailers, as well as a change in attitude from all of us who ever buy or eat takeaway food or drinks.

Chicken takeaway in plastic trays.
Credit: Pixabay

Quick fixes for fast food?

Not all takeaway meals are equally problematic.

Fish and chips wrapped in paper will create far less environmental pollution than the dreaded “clamshell” polystyrene box.

The same goes for burgers, kebabs, falafel, pakora or anything else if it’s sold in minimal, sustainable packaging. But all too often it’s not.

The first obvious step should be to get rid of all unnecessary takeaway packaging. We’ve already seen effective campaigns to reduce or ban the use of carrier bags. There’s no reason why this can’t be widened to cover takeaway containers and cutlery.

An easy example would be to stop serving food in disposable/plastic containers when customers are eating on the premises. This happens in a lot of fast food restaurants, usually either to reduce the risk of breakages or avoid the need for washing-up facilities.

The attitude has been that it’s easier to put everything in the trash. That needs to change. (We’ll look in more detail at options for fast food retailers below)

Then there’s the idea of using alternative, more eco-friendly materials for takeaway packaging, which we’ll look at next.

Alternative materials for containers and cutlery

Up until recent years, the least-worst option for takeaway containers was the aluminium foil tray.

The trouble is, even though aluminium is endlessly recyclable – and recycling it uses much less energy than making it from scratch – the trays themselves aren’t usually made from recycled material. And customers often bin them after eating anyway.

The rise of the clear plastic takeaway container has largely been because they’re microwavable and have air-tight lids. And they’re often technically reusable and recyclable, though again this isn’t always done.

Since the growing problem of plastic waste has become more high-profile, the search has been on in earnest for replacement materials. Especially ones made from sustainable resources, and that are either reusable or environmentally benign when disposed of.

Some solutions, other than the obvious paper and cardboard, have included bamboo, plant starches, bagasse (a dry pulpy residue from sugarcane), hemp, wheat straw and banana leaves.

The trick is to find something that’s sturdy enough to cope with hot, moist food, but not so sturdy that it won’t break down in the environment.

Ideally all takeaway containers and utensils would be fully biodegradable and/or compostable.

Several manufacturers and retailers now claim to offer these options, but not all are what they might seem. Some may be made from unsustainable source materials. And some may only break down under certain very specific environmental conditions.

Indeed, there are no industrial facilities to compost these items. That means they are probably going to landfill or worse still finding their way into the oceans. In both cases they won't have the right conditions to biodegrade – so they'll add to the pollution and could still end up choking or entangling sea life.

Wooden cutlery in pint-size pots
Credit: Pixabay

Eaten, not stirred

One of the more innovative options is edible cutlery.

Bakeys, an Indian company, makes sturdy, biscuit-like spoons, forks and chopsticks using millet and other cereal flours. They offer savoury, sweet or plain options. These can either be eaten during your meal or, if uneaten, will decompose in a few days.

A lot of takeaway food retailers, for example LEON, are making the switch to compostable cutlery made of wood or bamboo. Network Rail, who run most of the UK’s train stations, have demanded that all food outlets on their premises replace plastic spoons and stirrers with thin, biodegradable wooden sticks.

So lots of positive, plastic-free developments. But often it just means replacing one heap of disposable stuff with a different type of disposable stuff – causing other pollution problems. Surely it's better to produce less stuff in the first place?

The return of reusables

The best way to minimise the volume of products being generated (plastic or otherwise) is to reuse what we already have. Just like people used to do in the pre-disposable era (ie pre-1950s). And there are signs it’s already happening in some cases.

It might have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, but lots of people are now carrying their own refillable water bottles and coffee mugs, to help reduce the number of disposable bottles and cups being used.

Close-up of woman holding Friends of the Earth Plastic-Free aluminium water bottle
Friends of the Earth promoting an alternative to plastic in everyday use.
Credit: Friends of the Earth/Aurelia Bergs

The same could be done with takeaway containers and even cutlery. It’s just a matter of customers and retailers getting used to the idea – and incentives being put in place to encourage the change.

One of the potential problems raised by takeaway outlets is the question of container size and portions.

If people turn up with their own, randomly-sized food boxes, the retailer has to know how full to fill them – for the sake of fairness as well as profit margins. But this should be easily solvable using the right measuring devices at the point of sale.

Another challenging criterion might be hygiene or public health.

Reusable food and drink containers and cutlery – especially shareable ones – may need to be hygienically sterilised in order for local authorities to allow their use.

There have been cases in the US where such schemes have been banned because it was judged, fairly or not, that the cleaning processes were not adequate.

What should takeaway outlets do?

Food outlets can encourage container re-use by offering discounts for customers bringing their own. Coffee chains like Pret a Manger are already doing this.

Perhaps we'd see more of these kind of offers if there was a government tax on single-use takeaway containers?

Outlets should ask customers whether they actually want/need cutlery when buying their food or drink, not just provide it automatically. And maybe keep cutlery and utensils out of sight or easy reach, so customers don’t just grab them without thinking.

They definitely shouldn’t be offering disposable containers or utensils to customers eating on the premises.

If outlets are providing single-use items, they should choose ones with as little plastic content as possible. And only the types of plastic that are easily recyclable – at the moment that usually means PET or PP, recycle codes 1 or 5.

But clearly the focus should be on keeping plastics out of landfill, and to stop it from polluting our streets, and ending up in our rivers and seas. That means completely avoiding the use of these single-use plastics.

Usually wherever milk and sugar etc are added to hot drinks at the point of sale, it should be possible to provide metal, washable reusable stirrers at that point, rather than throwaway ones.

Take away, bring back, wash, repeat

It's a mantra that Friends of the Earth wants food and drink outlets to pour themselves into. Reusable food tubs, cups, growlers, you name it.

There are several examples of container-return schemes around the world.

For instance there’s the ‘Bring Back Box’ in the Swiss city of Bern.

Customers of restaurants in the scheme pay a 10-franc (£8) deposit for a sturdy plastic takeaway box. (OK it’s still plastic, but at least it’s multi-use.)

After you’ve finished your takeaway meal, you return the box to any participating restaurant. Then the boxes are washed and redistributed.

Another similar example is the Go Box scheme in Portland and San Francisco in the US.

This is an app-based reusable box service for takeaway outlets and street vendors. The robust plastic meal boxes can be used up to 300 times before they’re eventually recycled.

There are other schemes based on the popular Indian 'tiffin boxes' – stainless steel stackable tins that can hold a selection of hot or cold foods. Typically, a retailer might sell or rent the tiffin box to customers, who will bring it each time they buy a takeaway. In India, tiffin boxes are usually picked up from homes and delivered to work places.

In most cases these reusing/sharing schemes mean that washing-up is going to have to become more of a thing again in takeaway outlets.

Plates, bowls, cups and cutlery can’t just be binned after a single use, so someone has to clean them. That obviously has implications for energy and water use, but it could also bring new business and employment opportunities too.

Again, the key goal is to prevent our world being choked with plastic – other issues are resolvable.

What should manufacturers do?

Product manufacturers should be looking at designing the most appealing, durable, safe and resource-efficient reusable containers possible.

They should work with plastic recycling processors to make sure that any plastics they do use in their containers or utensils are easily recycled.

What should government and authorities do?

To encourage a society that reuses instead of throwing away, the UK government should ban disposable plastic items. And for single-use containers that aren't made of plastic, it should introduce a tax (say 25p) to be paid by consumers at takeaway outlets.

(In May 2018 the EU proposed a ban on plastic cutlery and straws in order to reduce marine litter.)

Government should also make packaging producers financially responsible for dealing with packaging that’s not recycled, including the costs of clearing up the litter this causes.

Local authorities could help launch and run reusable container schemes. They can also require the use of reusable items on public land or at public events, or as part of the licensing conditions of markets or local businesses.

They can also use their procurement powers to make sure single-use plastic containers are not used in any public sector catering outlets.

Government and councils can help raise awareness of the issues and solutions by promoting the benefits of reusable utensils, and can work with manufacturers and retailers to help people know what and how to recycle.

There’s still a lot of confusion about what can and can’t be recycled. For instance you’d expect cardboard food packaging (for pizzas or sandwiches etc) to be an easy-to-recycle option. But in some cases it’s not so straightforward – for instance if there’s a lot of food residue or grease on the box, or even a hidden plastic lining on the cardboard.

We’d also hope to see better recycling facilities developed in future where a wider range of materials can be successfully recycled (even “contaminated” batches), rather than sent to landfill or incinerated as they may be now.

What can we do as takeaway customers?

You don't have to be a passive polluter.

If you see that your food is about to be served in an inappropriate plastic container, there’s no reason why you can’t politely point this out, and ask for it to be packaged in something less polluting (paper or cardboard for example), if at all possible.

People are already getting in the habit of refusing plastic straws – or any straws – in pubs and cafes. And the drinks industry has valiantly managed not to collapse in the process.

So if enough people speak up about the pointless waste of serving fast food in a bulky and indestructible plastic box, the takeaway outlets should get the message.

The trickiest situations will obviously involve more liquidy takeaways – curries or other sauce-heavy meals. Paper and cardboard packaging isn’t usually going to be enough. That’s where providing reusable containers will come into its own.

If you don’t need cutlery, or a stirrer for your drink, just say “no thanks” at the point of sale. That’s far better than quietly binning the unwanted items, even though that might feel like the easier option.

You can also carry your own cutlery. No one wants to be clanking around with a full canteen of metal cutlery, but lightweight, washable alternatives exist, including wood and silicon. You can get a nice compact wooden set – knife, fork and spoon – in a neat, sealed carry-pouch, for just a few pounds.

Reuse and return schemes are technically possible for cutlery and utensils too, but as far as we know these haven’t been trialled yet.

Where do takeaways go from here?

Some of these actions can be taken immediately – for instance legal bans or taxes on particular single-use takeaway items. Or all of us saying no to unnecessary plastics.

Some changes may be more gradual. It might take time for some manufacturers to develop more sustainable products, and for a complete shift in eating and buying habits when it comes to our much-loved takeaway meals.

But the longer we wait, the more our seas fill up with pointless throwaway plastics. Is our moment’s pleasure worth that?