When Wild Thing launched in 2019 we had a very clear aim that we would offer no single use coffee cups or takeaway containers. Over the past year we have seen people drink coffees in jam jars, boujee reusables and we have even lent out a few of our own mugs! Porridges have been served up in old randoms jars, wholefood bowls in (vegan) ice-cream tubs, whilst Wagamamas' (AMAZING) containers have been donated and used again and again. (They are our favourite by the way! If anyone is having a lockdown kitchen sort out and come across any of those then please save them for us- we love them!
Since cafes had to close their doors many food businesses are being forced to change their core business activity to become takeaway outlets. During the past 2 months, we have too been offering a delivery service, by providing free food for vulnerable communities.
There seems to be a trade off at the moment - between providing food vs sustainability. We are currently delivering free food parcels for those who need access to food,but, we are serving those meals in plastic packaging. I will very openly admit that. We have chosen to use recyclable plastic containers because they are reusable. They seemed the best fit for this type of emergency food project we are running. Whilst the focus is on providing access to food, it could seem that our priority had shifted from the most sustainable solution. However, we have chosen to use plastic containers because they can be used again and again. (They are particularly handy for storing leftovers in the fridge and freezer!) We have had to use some single use paper containers, which was all we could get at the time. Our priority was launching our food project to provide access to food for those who needed it.
Wild Thing will now move into the next phase of its covid response which will see us relaunching the cafe as a delivery & takeaway only service. But before we do that, I am using this time to delve into the research of takeaway food packaging.
Lots of food businesses have been back open for a while and it's beautiful to see the independent food options back in Cardiff. It's so important that consumers have the option to support local independent businesses during this time. Since more and more businesses are re-opening I have had more and more questions of when will Wild Thing open.
We are planning our relaunch and aim to do this whilst simultaneously providing free meals for the community. However, it hasn't been something we've needed or wanted to rush.
Before launching Wild Thing, I spent a year planning the cafe. From choosing our green energy company, to our ethical food suppliers and even down to choosing organic vegan paint. It was a long process. And now, as we relaunch our business, whose core business activity will be vastly different from what it initially set out to be. I am not going to rush that and will do it with great care and consideration.
So my latest project has been studying takeaway containers. Choosing not to offer any single use containers was really important for us when opening. However, in order for our business to continue to operate for the foreseeable it is an option we have to take up.This is not a case of choosing profit over anything else. Because we are not about that. It's about making an ethical, sustainable business survive so that we can continue to provide jobs, deliver on our social missions and feed our city. I would personally, love to see to cafe filled with all of our lovely customers, but that doesn't currently seem like an option. So for now it is a case of making takeaways work, whist having the least impact on the planet and people.
Cardiff blogger, Hungry City Hippy has shone a great light on the topic of takeaway containers, in particularly in this blog post. It outlines the takeaway market , identifies the differences between recyclable, biodegradable and compostable, but most importantly highlights that compostable containers "still require specific conditions to break down; conditions of heat and pressure and space that are only available inside an industrial facility", which we don't have in Wales. So compostable packaging ends up in the same incinerator as general waste. If disposed of incorrectly it can actually contaminate other items. The blog post neatly concludes by promoting reusable containers as best solution for takeaway. Please do read the full blog post - as it is really a great read!
Much like other small business owners - I am left with the difficult decision of finding out how the best way to offer my food to customers, during a pandemic, whilst also not compromising our planet. Are we still able to offer reusables or is this something which is unsafe and how could we do it under social distancing conditions?
The rise of the alternatives.
In the past few years we have seen takeaway containers made from bamboo, rice, sugarcane, all different types of plants. These are described as bio-plastics, which are the plastics that are made partly from plants - they seem like the best solution! However , as Hungry City Hippy identified there is huge problem with this type of material, in that we don't have the facilities for them to biodegrade correctly.
Refill, the water refill app report supports the findings from Hungry City Hippy, which identifies the lack of facilities which enable us to dispose of bio-plastics correctly.
"Ultimately, due to the way we usually use bio-plastics – as takeaway food containers and packaging – they end up in the bin and then in landfill. The other issue is that as they need certain conditions to biodegrade, they can still contribute to marine pollution if they become litter."
However, without too much despair, there is hope for bio-plastics, if the facilities become available, Refill continue:
"If compostable plastics are to become a viable alternative to oil-based plastics, there is a lot of work for the bioplastics and waste industries to do so they can better work together. Find out more about the issue here. " You can read the full report here.
This seems hopeful for the future.
Covid-19 and a move away from the reusable.
It seems that coronavirus has shifted behaviours even for the most conscious consumers, with a move from reusables and a re-rise in plastic single use takeaway containers. This blog follows a conscious consumer as they identify their increase in single use plastic usage. However, the blog misses the point by offering compostable alternatives , which we don't have the facilities for, well not in Cardiff, where our cafes are based anyway!
Starbucks seem to have set the trend of refusing the reusable cup as a way of protecting staff and customers. However, there has been no clear advice from FSA or Public Health on whether this step needs to be introduced. Link here for full article.
Interestingly, the gov.uk website has not explicitly ban reusables. It has a detailed section on Food Packaging which can be seen below:
"The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that the likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low. The risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also very low.
While food packaging is not known to present a specific risk, efforts should be made to ensure it is cleaned and handled in line with usual food safety practices.
Cleaning should be in line with food hygiene practice and the environmental controls set out in the business’ HACCP. Staff should continue to follow existing risk assessments and safe systems of working. No additional precautions need to be taken."
The case for the reusable!
Despite the shift towards the single use takeaway containers, as a health precaution , there is currently no research to back up this move. As we look to our friends across the world in Australia, they seem to be offering some pretty sound advice for the case of the reusable.
“There is currently no evidence to suggest there is any benefit in switching to disposables. The most effective measures you can take are practising good hand hygiene and cleaning, with particular focus on shared frequently touched surface."
They continue "So yes, reusables can coexist with the responsible and safe service of food and beverages. Viruses and bacteria can exist on both single-use and reusables alike. Single-use items are not cleaner or safer - it’s about following good hygiene practices" link here to full article.
Additionally, Wired highlights how single use products aren't necessarily more hygienic than reusables. “No disposable package is today sterile, just to be explicitly clear,” said Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle in an interview withGrist. Different kinds of disposable packaging have different microbial limits set by independent standard-setting organizations—and unless a product is explicitly marked sterile, none of those limits are zero. Loop’s circular model is aimed at doing away with the stereotype that packaging has to be disposable to be sanitary. Szaky emphasized that the process of rewashing Loop’s reusable packaging is “at the most sophisticated level washing can be.” The article does continue not to scare consumers off of any packaging completely, but it's important to note that just because packaging is brand new it doesn't mean it is sterile. And of course a plastic single use container has had a production life cycle before arriving to the food premises to be filled. With this idea in mind, being responsible for ones own container seems like a more hygienic approach - as you could said to be more in control of that items cleanliness.
The reusable- sustainability vs practicality during social distancing measures.
When considering the case for the reusable, it could appear to still be the most sustainable option for takeaway container during the pandemic, with no proof that the reusable shouldn't be used.
However, during lockdown and social distancing restrictions, the issue is how to make that practically work. Could a solution be to offer time slots for drop offs of reusables?
In the same way that cafes are advised to offer collection times slots for takeaway food, cafes could offer drop off times for reusables. The reusables then get refilled, with the consumers not on the premises. Then the customer is given a collection time. Does that all sound like a bit of a hassle? How much are customers committed to supporting their local food businesses whilst taking food away in the most sustainable way? And of course, this is assuming that customers are travelling to the food businesses via foot or bycycle, as if a consumer would be travelling there twice via public transport or car then wouldn't that be counter productive?
There's a lot to think about for the best solutions to providing takeaways whilst doing so with least impact on the planet. For conscious consumers, in particularly for those who live locally to food businesses, and don't want to compromise the environment, then this sounds like a viable solution!
Gov.uk have advised offering a pick-up service - could this be mirrored to offer a drop off service for reusables too?
I would love to see a box which can be used across Cardiff independent food outlets.
This eco container scheme from UCL is a lovely example, which works on a token - reusable container exchange basis so that students reduce their single usages. Portland has a city wide approach, GO box where businesses can be listed on an app, a reusable contaner can be used in all businesses that are involved in the scheme. I think that this would work well in Cardiff due to it's small size and strong community of independent food businesses.
Solutions for Wild Thing.
This blog post really has been the inside to a business owners brain, when trying to consider how to operate during a pandemic whilst avoiding any health risks and without too much compromise to our planet.
So what will Wild Thing do?
From my previous feelings about takeaway containers and further research. We will not be using compostable or bio-plastics as they will just end up in landfill.
These options may look and even sound more sustainable but I don't personally think that is the case.
I think the best solutions appear to be:
-Offering all takeaway containers to come in recycled and recyclable plastic containers which are also reusable. Customers can use these for future lunchboxes ,storing food a at home and even bringing them back to the cafe when we are reopened to add to our donated reusable box collection!
-Offer a drop off reusable point. This may not be suited to all customers, but perhaps to those who are more local. Customers who wish to purchase a takeaway from us could drop off their reusable containers for us to fill and then to be delivered
-Offer a borrowed takeaway box which has a small deposit fee.
-Have an add on option , if people do need to buy a reusable lunchbox. I am a strong believer that the most sustainable things are the ones you already own, but this could be an option for those who really need it.
I would really love to hear your thoughts on all of this. I know it's a long blog post and may seem a little like a big brain dump, but I think its important for decisions to be transparent. As an ethical business you sometimes feel like if you make a wrong decision then people will very publicly call you out on it! So - what's your thoughts on this choice? Is this the route you would chose?
I am going to be adding a poll to Wild Thing's Instagram Stories so please vote and share your thoughts.