Just Eat works with 34,000 restaurants that deliver to 95% of all UK postcodes, serving over 12.7 million customers. The single-use packaging footprint of the operation is considerable. Robin Clark, Just Eat’s business partnerships director, talks to David Burrows about why choosing materials keeps him awake at night and why it’s a struggle to make reusables work.
DB: Where do you see the big issues in takeaway packaging?
RC: We know the recycling infrastructure in the UK and globally has its challenges – with only 9% of plastic waste to date being recycled around the world. Take the plastic takeaway box, for example: even if a customer reuses the box six times it will still end up in landfill. [We think] innovation is key and we want to go beyond plastic by finding environmentally friendly and viable alternatives to plastic products.
DB: Like the edible sachets you’ve been working on?
RC: We believe around 16 billion plastic condiment sachets are used globally every year. Last year, we teamed up with Notpla to trial seaweed-based sauce sachets, filled with ketchup, with 10 restaurant partners in London – and it worked. Across the trials, we stopped 46,000 plastic sachets from entering landfill and the consumer feedback was electrifying: 92% said they would like to see more of their takeaway sauces coming in the seaweed-based sauce sachets, and 91% found the sachets as easy as or easier than a normal sachet to use. We will be expanding this with more restaurant partners in the coming weeks.[This month, Just Eat teamed up with Hellmann’s to expand the trial to 65 London outlets, which will serve a range of sauces in seaweed-based, Notpla sachets that “naturally biodegrade in approximately six weeks” and can be “thrown into the home compost or a normal waste bin, to fully decompose”.]
DB: Are there any practical issues with the sachets?
RC: For restaurants, the seaweed sachets do introduce a significant change in procurement because the shelf life is, of course, a lot shorter than a traditional plastic sachet. However, given a traditional plastic condiment sachet can take around 700 years to degrade completely, we feel this highlights the positive environmental impact.
DB: Can this technology be used for other packaging too?
RC: We’re working with Notpla to create a biodegradable and home-compostable takeaway box, lined with seaweed that we’re hoping to bring to trial this year. This is a natural packaging solution that can be recycled, but even if it escapes the waste stream it will degrade in a matter of weeks. We’ve also tested it to ensure it is heatproof, greaseproof and leakproof. It’s a box that will work in the same way a plastic box does, but without harming the environment.
DB: Does wondering which materials to use keep you awake at night?
RC: One hundred per cent it does. This is why we have been looking at new materials that would offer solutions, not in 10 years’ time but in the next five years. We want to help make a real difference by tackling plastic pollution across the industry, and we believe the right way to do this is to find viable and innovative alternatives.
DB: Where does that leave reusables, then?
RC: The debate around reusables is a complex one for the takeaway sector. Earlier this year, we ran a plastics hackathon at Imperial College in London, bringing together students, scientists and experts from big brands to collaborate and find solutions to the plastic problem. During the session there were a couple of well-thought-through proposals around the circular economy and the reuse of takeaway boxes, but we found these ideas struggled on the economics – and this, in reality, is a huge challenge. Creating an entire new infrastructure inevitably brings cost into the product, as well as raising questions around hygiene when reusing these products. This is why we’re focused on looking beyond this by finding new materials to help tackle the problem of plastic pollution.
Robin Clark was speaking to David Burrows as part of “The Future of Foodservice Packaging” report in association with BaxterStorey, published by Footprint Intelligence in October.