How the food industry is serving up sustainability

From vegan vending machines to zero plastic takeaways, the food industry is finding inventive solutions to its plastic problem.

Last year, workers in Britain used almost 11 billion items of waste, according to environmental charity, Hubbub. An average lunch included four separate items with 76% of shoppers picking up an item such as a boxed sandwich, 70% a packet of crisps and 64% a napkin.

It’s big business — costing the nation £13.65 million every year, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping: 64% of people said they buy their lunch out more than they did five years ago.

The CupClub collection box for recyclable cups

And while the problem has escalated, the systems to deal with waste have not necessarily kept up.

Recycling is often confusing or inaccessible. Booming food delivery services in the UK have contributed both to an increase in plastic use and carbon emissions. And our food habit is equally inefficient: 250 million kilograms of edible food is sent to landfill every year.

But given an increase in public awareness — this month is Plastic Free July — companies are looking to service design to realise solutions, from smarter recycling systems at airports to subscription services transforming takeaway.

Rethinking recycling

The “take-back scheme” at Marks and Spencer

Sandwich boxes, crisp packets, sauce sachets: all the meal deal staples might be good value but their environmental cost stacks up.

Confusion over dark plastics — which are harder to recycle — or just a lack of access to recycling bins exacerbate the problem.

A new range of recycling services from UK supermarkets is aiming to rethink users’ attitudes to recycling with an emphasis on closed loop systems.

Closed loop systems mean that no packaging waste goes to landfill. They adopt a more holistic approach, from sustainable packaging design to efficient recycling processes. It also requires an easier user experience.

“We need to shift consumer behaviour”

Customers at 10 Tesco stores will be able to recycle crisp packets, shopping bags and other hard-to-recycle plastics at their in-store bins. The trial is part of the store’s attempt at creating a closed loop system — it hopes that by 2025, all its remaining packaging will be recyclable.

Likewise, Marks and Spencer is aiming to “shift consumer behaviour” by creating “systemic change”, the supermarket says. Its new “plastic take-back scheme” also lets customers bring back hard-to-recycle plastics, which are then converted into playground equipment. It has so far been rolled out at 10 stores.

At the other end of the process, Sainsbury’s is trialling a “pre-cycling” area where customers can remove unwanted packaging in store before they leave. It also aims to remove 1.3 million kilograms of plastic from products over the coming year.

Closed loop coffee

The Hubbub and Starbucks coffee cup scheme

It’s not just food packaging that contributes to the waste problem. According to a Government report, almost half of all coffees and hot drinks are sold in disposable cups.

Like our lunches out, our caffeine habit doesn’t look like it will be stopping anytime soon: there are four times as many coffee shops today in the UK as there were in the year 2000 and one in five of us visits a coffee shop every day.

In an attempt to meet this rising demand, UK-based start-up CupClub is trialling a closed loop system with a focus on coffee cups.

The scheme provides coffee shops with reusable cups that customers can place in drop-off points. After they are cleaned, they can then be reused up to 100 times.

The coffee cup recycling scheme, the first of its kind, recently secured £360,000 in private investment in the hope of driving expansion across London.

“It’s about embedding habits”

Recycling is not a one-size-fits-all solution — it needs to be adapted for different places to meet different needs. Hubbub partnered with Starbucks in June on a month-long reusable cup scheme at Gatwick airport.

The environmental organisation says that putting 2,000 reusable cups in circulation throughout the airport’s south terminal is a “major shift culturally”.

Most people do not bring reusable cups to an airport — meaning that Gatwick has to dispose of seven million paper cups annually.

Saskia Restorick, director at Hubbub, says that the charity developed ideas about consumer habits from observational research at Gatwick.

“If you’re in an airport, you’re busy — you just want to get your coffee and don’t want to miss your plane. We designed a system as simple and intuitive as possible,” Restorick says.

As well as keeping the collection points’ labelling simple, Hubbub put a matching sleeve on the coffee cups in the second half of the trial, to connect with the collection points and keep the look and feel consistent.

They also noticed that while most people at airports took their coffee to go as they didn’t want to risk being stuck in a store, they also didn’t walk very far before binning their coffee. For that reason, Hubbub put the collection points close by to the cafés to encourage use of the boxes.

As well as trying to tackle airport waste, Restorick says that university campuses provide a “good audience” as people go to the same places every day.

“It’s about embedding habits,” Restorick says. Hubbub has run similar schemes at King’s College London and at universities in Leeds.

Guilt-free takeaways

The Allplants freezer

Picking up lunch on the go is a problem, but it doesn’t end once the working day finishes. Although a takeaway is the easiest and most tempting option on a Friday night, the plastic containers, disposable cutlery and emissions from delivery vehicles are enough to give environmentally-minded customers a shock.

According to market research company Npd, the takeaway delivery industry is now worth £4.2 billion, up 73% in a decade. From 2018-2020, it is estimated to grow another 17%.

“We wanted to create a system that was radically convenient”

Allplants, a vegan meal delivery service, which sources its food sustainably, is trying to rethink how food reaches its customers.

Just launched at Huckletree, a co-working space in west London, their new vending machine combined with freezer lets office workers choose one of nine dishes, which customers can then warm up.

Because the meals are plant-based they can be kept in freezers longer, which means less food waste and fewer deliveries, thereby cutting down on emissions.

“We wanted to create a system that was radically convenient,” Fraser Williams, marketing specialist at Allplants, says about the scheme, which the companies hopes to one day roll out in public places.

In April, the first zero plastic food subscription service launched in north London. Dabba Drop delivers vegetarian curry in tiffin tins to local areas via bicycle.

Aimed firmly at the Friday night takeaway crowd, the “conscious curry” delivery provides dinner at the end of the week, once or twice a month. The initial dabba — the Hindi word for the tiffin carrier — costs £15, but it’s reusable.

Also trying to rethink how we order food is Deliveroo, the UK’s second biggest food delivery service, serving over 16,000 restaurants.

Last year, the London-founded food service added the “opt in for cutlery” service, which asks customers whether they want to receive cutlery with their food order, instead of automatically receiving it. The change in user experience has resulted in a 90% drop in cutlery requests worldwide, according to the company.

Now Deliveroo is trialling a “clean and recycle” service in Cambridge and Oxford. Launching in August, the scheme will allow customers to request that their containers are picked up, washed and reused.

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