Plastic waste is damaging our planet. As a caterer I undoubtedly contribute to the pollution of our planet and I want to stop. But – can I afford to stop using plastic as the alternatives are more expensive? Although I enjoy catering, I work to earn money, and replacing the catering disposables I use with eco-friendly alternatives will cut into my profits. Will my customers embrace my efforts to be ‘plastic free’ and help absorb the increase in my costs? How much is it likely to cost me to say no to plastic? Here’s what I found out.
The question posed ‘Can Caterers Afford to Say No to Plastic?’ has been more difficult to answer than I originally thought. I had hoped to suggest alternatives to plastic disposables, together with their costs, to share with other caterers. I had presumed that the cost of these alternatives would be higher, but that given the impact plastic waste has on our environment, it would be a cost worth bearing. Blue Planet 2 and the film A Plastic Ocean have shocked a lot of people and many want to now say no to plastic. My previous post here details some of the initiatives being taken to reduce plastic waste.
Unfortunately, what I found out is that I have a serious lack of knowledge on this subject and I wonder how many caterers share my lack of knowledge!! Do you know what the difference is between a biodegradable product and a compostable one? Do you know which paper product has a compostable lining and which one has a plastic lining? Do you know how to reduce plastic waste?
The following items are used by a large number of caterers and I have attempted to highlight the damage caused to the environment if we continue to use these products, together with the eco-friendly options available to us and the approximate cost implications.
I have been using 7” and 9” polystyrene plates and these cost me 0.03 and 0.04 pence respectively. I preferred using polystyrene plates to paper ones due to their strength.
Problems with Polystyrene Plates
Polystyrene is non-biodegradable and can take at least 500 years to decompose. Because polystyrene is lightweight, it travels easily through gutters and storm drains until it reaches our oceans. There it breaks down into smaller pieces and is ingested by marine life and other wildlife. Burning polystyrene on bonfires releases carbon monoxide and styrene monomers into the environment, this can be harmful to our health. Very few recyclers recycle polystyrene, in particular containers that have been used for food.
It is evident that by using polystyrene plates I am guilty of adding plastic waste to our oceans.
Alternatives to Polystyrene Plates
Vegware has the slogan ‘Go Plastic Free With Vegware’ so looks hopeful. As an alternative to polystyrene I can buy 7” compostable bagasse plates for 0.09 pence if I buy 50 or 0.05 pence if I buy 500. I can also buy 9” bagasse plates at a cost of 0.13 pence if I buy 50 or 0.08 pence if I buy 500. Their website states that these plates are sturdier than paper plates.
Problems with Compostable Plates
My costs would increase by 66% and 100% if I were to buy the bagasse plates in the larger packs, but more importantly, the plates can only be commercially composted with food waste “where facilities exist”. As I have different clients, sometimes one-off clients, who are responsible for disposing of the waste – I have no way to ensure that the plates will be disposed of properly.
Cornware produces ‘biodegradable tableware with a low carbon footprint.’ As an alternative to polystyrene plates at a cost of 0.05 pence for 7” plates and 0.08 pence for 9” plates.
Problems with Biodegradable Plates
Again my costs would increase by 66% and 100%. Their website states “with the correct conditions (temperature, humidity, and the presence of microbes) it will be biodegradable after 90 days”. But how do I know if the plates, when discarded, will meet with the correct conditions? Also, although the plates can be buried in a landfill facility, their website states that they “should not be buried too deep down where oxygen is heavily depleted” otherwise methane will be formed. What control do either I or my client have over this?
These can be purchased easily from a large number of suppliers and are cheap. They have the distinct disadvantage, however, of not being as sturdy as polystyrene plates – which could easily result in an unsatisfactory experience for the customer.
I could buy plastic plates and re-use them, but this is not an option as I want to go plastic free!
My other option would be to purchase vitrified porcelain plates. Nisbets sell 6” plates costing 0.67 pence and 9” ones costing £1.07 each. Initially I could get away with ordering 5 packs of each costing £311.80 but I would have to purchase more to allow for breakages, losses and busier periods. I would also have to purchase plate racks to carry and store the plates. On a positive note I would be plastic free, but I would have an initial outlay and I would have to allow for additional labour and cleaning costs. I would also have to use environmentally friendly dishwasher powder!
I have been using plastic cutlery costing 0.03 per item. Once they have been used they are contaminated by food residue and highly unlikely to be recycled.
I am again responsible for contributing to the plastic waste that is harming our planet.
Alternatives to plastic cutlery
Vegware sells two types of compostable cutlery costing 0.08 if I buy a pack of 50 or between 0.04 and 0.05 if I buy 1000. Providing I buy in bulk the increase in cost is not too bad. The advantage of compostable cutlery is that it can simply be disposed of with the food waste – which is environmentally friendly if the food waste is disposed of correctly.
Cornware sell cutlery that is biodegradable at a cost of 0.02 pence for a fork or spoon, and 0.04pence for a knife or fork – providing that I purchase 1000 or more. Their cutlery is all biodegradable. The cost is therefore comparable to what I am paying at the moment. Providing that the cutlery is disposed of correctly, the cost for me to go plastic free is negligible and I cause no harm to the environment.
Delistore sell wooden cutlery that is compostable, biodegradable and recyclable at a cost of 0.03 pence per item providing I buy in packs of 1000. This is the same price I am paying at the moment for plastic cutlery. There is therefore no additional cost for me to go plastic free and there is no detrimental effect to the environment if the cutlery is disposed of correctly.
I currently use stainless steel salvers so in this respect I am plastic free.
I currently cover the food displayed on my platters with cling film to keep the food fresh and free from contamination. This plastic is contaminated with food and is presumably sent to landfill.
I am obviously adding to the plastic waste harming our environment.
Alternatives to Cling Film
I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to find an alternative to cling film that would meet my needs. I have looked at the following:
Biodegradable Cling Film
I thought that Bacofoil sold a biodegradable cling film, but every website I have tried states that the product is not available. From Amazon you can buy biodegradable cling film from Silvex but it is only 29cm wide.
Beeswax Cotton Food Wraps
These are recommended for the home by various people, but the largest size I could find was 40cm by 40cm and cost £10. These would be too small and costly for a buffet, and I would anticipate that quite a few would not be returned.
These are reusable but I could not find any large enough.
I originally thought I could simply replace cling film with foil, but I understand that since it will be contaminated by food it is unlikely to be recycled. As my client is responsible for disposing of all waste after an event I think it is unlikely that he/she will want to wash the foil before disposing of it. I could ask for it to be returned to me for washing and disposal – but do I really want to do this?
Fortunately, apart from the packaging which can invariably be recycled, there is no plastic in napkins. The napkins I currently buy cost 0.01 pence each.
However, they need to be disposed of correctly if I am to be kind to the environment. I understand that napkins are unlikely to be wanted for recycling for two reasons:
- napkins contaminated by food could ruin an entire batch of recyclables, and
- napkins are likely to have been created from recycled paper and therefore the fibres will be too short to be used again.
Also, if napkins are bleached with chlorine they should not be composted, nor should they be put into landfill.
Alternatives to Standard White Napkins
If the napkins are unbleached they can be composted – but will my customers accept napkins being a light brown colour? These cost approximately 0.03 pence each.
Chlorine Free Napkins
You can buy white napkins that are bleached using a non-chlorine process. These also cost on average 0.03 pence each.
An alternative would be to purchase cotton napkins. I could buy 300 of these from Nisbets at a cost of 0.84 pence each and wash them using an eco-friendly detergent. This would involve an initial outlay of £252 but, more importantly, there would be additional labour costs to wash and iron the napkins and would involve some losses when the napkins are not returned or cannot be cleaned.
So, to care for the environment when purchasing napkins I have the choice of cotton napkins with a substantial initial outlay, or disposable napkins with an increase in costs of 200%, albeit the increase is only pennies.
Can I Say No to Plastic?
The answer is yes – as a caterer I can say no to plastic. There are various options available to me, with differing cost and labour implications, but I can go plastic free. Given the public awareness of the damage being caused to our oceans by plastic waste, I believe that the majority of my customers would like my catering service to be plastic free. I do, however, think that I would have to absorb the cost myself – but it could give me an advantage over my competitors.
The difficulty I face is trying to be kind to the environment. I can certainly purchase the eco-friendly catering disposables but their green credentials are lost if they are not disposed of using the correct operation.
I’d love to know your thoughts.