However innovative disposables manufacturers are in producing bio-degradable and recyclable solutions for packaging, they cannot control whether the consumer uses the appropriate waste stream if, indeed, said waste stream exists. John Young, Foodservice Sales & Marketing Director of food packaging and disposables giant Huhtamaki, talks to Kathy Bowry about the problems faced.
There seems to be a lack of municipal co-ordination when it comes to providing clear and readily available waste streams and John Young and Huhtamaki UK are calling on central Government and Local Authoties (LA) to act now to aid sustainable waste disposal. This is our biggest challenge as an industry, he says.
Young makes no bones about what happens to his companys products: Everything we make is thrown away. Unfortunately it is not always disposed of in the correct waste stream. Ideally what is needed is a paper cup, for example, that when the contents have been drunk can then be eaten but until that happens we are constantly developing new sustainable paper, plastics and derivatives for food and drink taken on the hoof that are easily recyclable or bio-degradable. Now, whether that happens or not is out of our hands as a company. We can sell recyclable products but that doesnt necessarily mean they find their way into a bio-waste stream.
How the containers are disposed of is down to our customers customers options and these are based on both the will to dispose conscientiously and the availability of facilities for correct disposal. We can only support our customers who want to help the environment by manufacturing a green product, we cannot guarantee that product is going to be put in the correct waste stream for maximum sustainability and nor can they.
He says manufacturers need to give guidance on the end of life options for products so that operators can make an informed choice and the end user knows where to dispose of it (assuming the appropriate bins are available). Information on the types of packaging is also important, he says. 'Degradradable product presents a difficult time time frame - it can take months to degrade in landfill. In the right facility at the right temperature it is slightly quicker but so many variables are involved that it doesn't always do what it says on the tin and traditional plastic takes forever. Recyclable products give something back either as another product or by providing energy and that is the route we need to follow, says Young. This is where the Save a Cup recycling scheme would really come into its own. However the scheme needs more organisations to sign up to it as it needs more tonnage to make it work to its ultimate potential. We also need to work closely with WRAP to force change at Government and LA level, he says.
What is needed are accessible bins for different types of recyclable product and Young goes on to deplore the fact that no LA has the same waste disposal scheme and that in the end all that happens is waste is put into a container and never separated. We have to do something about sorting out the waste streams and lobby the Government and LAs to aid sustainable waste disposal. This is our biggest challenge as an industry, he says. Nevertheless, Young says that even if the waste stream is non-existent, Huhtamaki will continue to design and produce green products that work up to the point of disposal. All the businesses coming to us have different needs and we offer support to our customers that goes far beyond the purchase. They know they need disposable cups, but do they need bio-ware, bio- degradable, recyclable or any permutation of those? It is our job not only to sell but to inform and advise.
'We are committed to constantly developing more sustainable products. For example, one popular High Street coffee shop chain is just about to take delivery of the next generation of greener triple wall disposable cups - but in the next few months we will be launching an even greener product with the same benefits, but with the paper insulation taken out of the cup. And even before that comes out, we are working on the generation after that. All this is due to pressure from our customers in organisations that want to see greater ownership of responsibility for the environment. They want to be seen by their customers to be totally responsible. However, he emphasises again that the brakes are being put on keeping packaging waste out of landfill simply because the supply chain and the end consumer dont have ownership of that one vital commodity to make it all work they just dont own the High Street bin.
Young poses the question: What do people do when they have finished their drink? Do they take the plastic lid off the paper cup? Paper and plastic are actually very different waste streams, you have a highly recyclable lid but it is chucked in the waste and that is why we are looking at developing the next generation of cup a one piece solution. Problem solved. Our customers, the foodservice operators, want to be seen to be taking recycling seriously, but it is not in their remit any more than it is in ours what happens to packaging when the consumer has finished with it. All we can do realistically is to take weight out, take the paper out and thereby save X amount of trees. This fits our remit as a responsible producer if you can make it green, it still helps. Less environmental damage, less weight, from a carbon footprint point of view, is good.
Young voices his worries about how sustainable waste collections are going to be organised around the Olympics, saying that although London 2012 is going all out to promote a green image, when it comes to litter it is the same old confusion over who is responsible for taking it away and recycling. The LDA points at LOCOG while LOCOG points at the LDA and there is not enough time to get it sorted, he says. However, he has good words to say about festivals like Glastonbury which deal with lots of people in a short time but operate waste collection and recycling on a closed loop system: Because it is a controlled environment it works well there, he says.
Despite the frustrations around waste streams, Young reckons things have moved on exponentially in the past few years. In the US, the greatest of all throwaway societies, sustainability was not on the agenda but there have been great advances since President Obama came to power. Now even Starbucks over there is looking hard at how to help in developing sustainable waste streams as a major user of disposables. Where the big boys lead others follow...
We all have a responsibility for our environment and education on sustainability needs to start at school and be taken into later life to help clean our environment up. Many people are keen to do just that right now by recycling, but they are confused because there is no cohesive national strategy in place. We must continue to lobby Government until it happens, Young concludes.