Eco-friendly Food Packaging

Eco-packaging has been a major issue with the foodservice industry. With environment conservation acquiring new dimensions since the last few years, biodegradable packaging has gain more importance. With Maharashtra declaring plastics as unwanted product and levying penalties not only on establishments using plastic cutlery and bags but also on the users, eco-friendly packaging has once again has come into the limelight. The search for biodegradable packaging by the food & beverage industry has brought up a new investment opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs. Ashok Malkani takes a look at the evolution of market for biodegradable packaging and, also, at the alternatives for plastic packaging and cutlery being used by the foodservice industry. 

The ban on plastics in Maharashtra introduced few months ago has, according to analysts, not only  taken a toll on the Foodservice establishments, who rely on to-go food orders f r o m diners, but also, once again brought the eco-friendly packaging issue in the forefront.

Since most of the Indian foodstuff is gravy based, packaging it for carry-home service is becoming extremely difficult for the restaurateurs. Orders for takeaways and home delivery parcels have witnessed a drastic drop as the eateries now have to identify new packaging material which could not only be eco-friendly but also make economic sense for packaging foodstuff. 

Traditionally food packaging industry comprised mostly of articles made f r o m plastics, metals, glass or paper. However, as far as cooked meals are concerned plastics has been the major product, particularly for carry-home stuff doled out by the restaurants. The plastic ban in Maharashtra has affected the parcel business severely. The plastic ban in Maharashtra has, according to one report, affected the restaurants in Mumbai adversely with most of them reporting a 10 to 30 per cent dip in business ever since the plastic ban came into effect.

Santosh Shetty, president, Mumbai unit of Indian Hotel & Restaurant Association (AHAR) says "It is difficult to say the exact per cent of the slowdown in business but more than half of the takeaway orders have been affected." He is of the opinion that the state government should have made arrangements for alternatives before starting the complete plastic ban.

It is worth mentioning that twenty five Indian states/Union Territories now have some form of ban on polythene carry bags and other packaging material. Every day, Indian cities generate 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste, with about 66% being mixed waste – polybags and pouches used to pack food. 

The Foodservice Situation 

With smart phone apps making breakfast, lunch, and dinner delivery available at the click of a button, restaurants that do a big takeaway business need to re-work on their packaging plan. While it’s crucial that takeout containers are spill-proof and easy to transport, restaurant owners have now to ensure that they are eco-friendly too.

Hardcastle Restaurants, master franchisee for McDonalds in West and South India claims that it has transitioned plastic to eco-friendly and biodegradable alternatives for items used for guest packaging. It avers that the company has already moved away f r o m plastic in Maharashtra and key cities in Karnataka. They are now working on a plan for a market-wide change in the coming months. 

Hardcastle Restaurants asserts that McDonald’s now gives customers wooden cutlery which includes spoons, stirrers, knives, and forks instead of plastic ones. The company, in a press note, has claimed, "The plastic cups have been replaced by superior quality paper cups. The straws are either made of paper or other biodegradable materials that are derived f r o m corn starch. In addition, Hardcastle Restaurants is testing various alternatives to ensure the best experience to its customers."

While the restaurant chain has replaced products in its restaurants across key cities in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the company is working on alternative solutions for its delivery segment that can ensure safe and fresh food is delivered without spillage. 

One may mention that this writer had found that disposing of waste in an eco-friendly manner has been uppermost in the minds of the hospitality industry for years – and many of them had started the practice of disposing their kitchen waste by using it as manure for their plants. However, the issue of eco-friendly packaging – which is a challenge for to-go service – has been brought into focus with the plastic ban in Maharashtra. 

Global Issue

The importance of eco-friendly packaging is not just an issue confined to Maharashtra – or even India – but it is a global malaise. And it has been discussed over and over again since last few years. 

When Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “War on Waste” aired on TV in 2017 it unveiled an inconvenient truth: The daily takeaway coffee habits of the Australians were on the brink of causing an environmental disaster. The programme revealed that 52 megatonnes of waste were generated in Australia due to disposable coffee cups and food packaging. It exposed the fact that Australia ranked fifth highest globally for generating the most municipal waste. 

Most of the Australians who viewed this programme had, till the programme was aired, believed that these coffee cups could be recycled.  Unfortunately, “War on Waste” showed that due to the plastic lining of most of these cups, that was not the case. 

Towards the end of 2017, the BBC’s Blue Planet II series spotlighted the extent of damage that plastic waste has done to marine life all around the world. The resulting outcry put the hospitality sector in the dock in two areas in particular: disposable cups, especially those used for coffee, which may in theory be recyclable but in practice rarely are; and the ubiquitous plastic straws dispensed f r o m bars and food counters across the sector. In the face of public uproar, the industry’s voluntary response was swift. Coffee brands such as Costa, Starbucks and most of the others started offering discounts to customers using reusable cups, while pub and bar groups have removed plastic straws f r o m their premises.

Though removal of straws, to coin a phrase, may be like ‘clutching at straws’ there is little doubt that environment has become a major issue today. Though we are not aware, of any research being done on the quantity of disposables being used in India by the hospitality industry, Huhtamaki, the Japanese specialist in packaging for food and drink all over the globe, including India, has tried to do the same. According to the research done by the company, 73% of consumers are buying food to-go at least once a week, and 80% buy takeaway hot drinks, globally.

India generates 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste a day, of which about 60% is recycled, most of it in the informal sector. While the recycling rate in India is considerably higher than the global average of 14%, there are still over 6,100 tonnes of plastic which are either landfilled or end up polluting streams or groundwater resources. While some kinds of plastic do not decompose at all, others could take up to 450 years to break down, leaving a vexing problem to address. 

Afroz Shah, a lawyer who has been leading a citizens’ clean-up drive on Mumbai’s Versova beach since October 2015, says 95% of the 5.5 million tonnes of waste they have collected so far is plastic, much higher than the 62% globally. 

The work which was initiated few years back has resulted in greater awareness of eco-friendly packaging products all over the globe. If one takes a look at the global scenario, one finds that US, Ireland and Australia were among the first countries to offer RecycleMe™ coffee cups. The cost of the product adds around 10 per cent to what would be paid for ‘normal’ cups. However, this cost is expected to decrease as demand rises. 

India’s Response 

In India too, the hospitality industry is slowly veering to environment friendly packaging. Startups like Swiggy and Zomato are on an eco-friendly drive.  

The Bengaluru- based food ordering and delivery platform, Swiggy, has launched ‘Swiggy Packaging Assist’, which is expected to help its restaurant partners access a range of innovative packaging solutions. At present, Swiggy has rolled out the option to partners in Bengaluru, Mumbai, and Pune and is expected to make it accessible to the rest of the cities in a couple of months. 

It plans to use packaging materials like paper and aluminium, which can be recycled. It has also introduced meal trays made of cornstarch and bagassse, the residue which is left after extraction of juice f r o m sugarcane. Swiggy’s eco friendly options are expected to suit their menu needs, at an economic rate.     

The foodtech Unicorn is working with several design consultants and manufacturers to come up with innovations and enhancement to food packaging material offered on its platform and is encouraging the use of sustainable packaging right f r o m the restaurant level.

Zomato is contributing to the eco-friendly drive by asking its restaurant partners to increase subscribers to its new “opt out of cutlery” feature. Zomato’s delivery partners use insulated, specially designed bags that keep food fresh without additional packaging layers. Deepinder Goyal, Founder and CEO of Zomato, has, in his blog post, stated that Zomato processes 16.5 Mn. orders a month and all the food aggregators in India combined process around 35-40 Mn orders a month. These orders add up to 22,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste being created every month.   

New Packaging Options

Materials used in the packaging industry are produced f r o m fossil fuels and are non-degradable. Most of the traditional packaging materials contain varying amounts of plastics which makes it non eco friendly. As urban populations continue to increase and consumption patterns change, packaging waste management has become a contentious issue

This has encouraged several entrepreneurs to come up with new eco-friendly packaging for food stuffs, which would prove utilitarian for restaurants looking on packaging of their food delivery orders. One of them is Rhea Singhal. Born in Mumbai, she moved to Dubai when she was only a year old. She was brought up in Dubai and London where she was working in a pharmaceutical company. After her marriage, when she moved to India, in 2009, she found that though people were talking about getting organic raw materials and preparing the healthiest meals, they were serving that food on plastic or Styrofoam plates. Rhea believes that if you eat healthy then what you eat out of should also be healthy for you.  So she started Ecoware – a company that produces eco-friendly tableware to fight the ill-effects of plastic and its substitutes. This was done after a lot of research and study undertaken by her. 

Ecoware was founded in 2009, with the factory in Uttarakhand, producing conventional bowls and plates – which were till then, traditionally, made f r o m plastic and Styrofoam. The eco-friendly range increased. The company’s products are made of plant biomass, that is, the leftover crop after the processing of rice, wheat or sugarcane. This raw material is crushed into a pulp and fed into a machine and placed in moulds. They are then heated and dried. 

Abhishek Agarwal is another entrepreneur who has ventured into the arena for serving the hospitality industry by supplying it with ecofriendly products. Pappco, Abhishek’s greenware manufacturing company, uses sugarcane, bamboo and wheat straw to manufacture its disposables. Started in 2011 to provide a viable alternative to plastic cutlery/containers in India, its core value is to produce disposable items that come f r o m plants. 

Bagasse is remoulded to a kind of paper that is used to make plates, cups and glasses. Abhishek says they have also recently started tapping into bamboo and wheat straw. Abhishek recalls "The first time we encountered these products was in Singapore.” Initially the company had negligible sales but they managed to revolutionise the market with the help of Anil Agarwal, Abhishek’s father, who supported the project. 

Now, a couple of weeks back, a Mumbai based entrepreneur, Rajiv Kumar, has started supplying plates and other cutlery – made in South India, f r o m betel nut leaf – to restaurateurs. 

Eco-friendly cutlery is slowly gaining ground. Though it is slightly costlier than the plastic stuff, foodservice industry is slowly veering towards it. Biodegradable cutlery has emerged as a better alternative to plastics across the globe and Indians have been early adopters of biodegradable products. All kinds of plant biomass material such as bagasse, rice husk, coconut coir etc. are being utilized for producing eco-friendly cutlery, tableware and packaging products that could see a surge in usage in the coming decade.

Eco-friendly Products 

There are different types of biodegradable cutlery and packaging products which the harassed restaurateur in Maharashtra can turn to: 

Sugarcane bagasse products: These products are widely accepted. Ecoware and Pappco are the pioneers in manufacture of these products on a large scale, through multiple manufacturing units across the country. Sugarcane biomass extracts are heated at high temperatures to be given the desired shape. The advantage with Bagasse products are that they can be moulded into any shape and thus help in catering to customized large orders. They are now being adopted by various well known cafés, food chains and airport food outlets across the country. 

Areca leaf cutlery: These lightweight, elegant and easy to use and throw, plates are suitable for all kinds of food, which can be served at any temperature. Light on the purse (Rs 4-10 per plate) they are good alternatives for food caterers. Eco Palm Leaf Plates, Verterra Dinnerware, The Magnus, Ecovision are some of leading manufacturers of this cutlery.

Rice husk tableware: This is one of the most durable forms of biodegradable cutlery. This is re-usable cutlery but it is pretty expensive. They are sold online in the cost range of Rs. 600-800 per plate.   

Starch granule products: Starch granules which are actually made out of Potato and Tapioca starch granules along with other biomass, are the latest innovation in the packaging industry. The bags made f r o m this material look like plastic but are 100 per cent biodegradable 

On average, according to the industry, bio-degradable packaging such as bagasse plates are 18-20% more expensive than plastic coated ones, while glass bottles are 30% costlier and rice and corn starch based spoons and forks are 15% more expensive.

With innovative technology helping in sustainable packaging, there are sure to be many more eco-friendly options available in the near future. With government and municipal authorities rapidly coaxing the restaurateurs f r o m different States to shift to eco-friendly cutlery and packaging, it is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to rise to the occasion and tackle this issue of plastic waste.

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