Polystyrene packaging debate hots up as industry rejects chefs’ claims

A recent call from a group of top chefs for policymakers to ban the use of polystyrene packaging in London has been condemned by the Food Packaging Association (FPA) and other waste management experts.

Hugh’s War on Waste presenter Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall was among five food industry professionals that penned a letter to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, requesting a city-wide ban on non-biodegradable polystyrene packaging which is used by restaurants and cafés for the likes of coffee cups and meat and fish trays.

The chefs referred to polystyrene packaging as the “scourge of Soho”, citing a number of potential environmental and residential health issues that could result from continuing to allow the use of polystyrene and the resulting waste it causes.

‘Very inaccurate’

However, the FPA – which promotes the responsible manufacturing, usage and disposal of foodservice packaging – has since released a response to the chefs, claimed that the letter was a “misplaced request” from professionals that rely on such a material in their day-to-day operations. Polystyrene is “100% safe and resource efficient and has excellent functionality”, the FPA says.

The organisation’s executive director Martin Kersh said: “This is a strange and perhaps misplaced request coming from such eminent chefs who place great emphasis on the freshness and high quality of the ingredients they cook and so rely on fish arriving with them in perfect condition as befitting their well-earned reputations.

“The chefs have also failed to consider the full life cycle of EPS [expanded polystyrene] in their damning environmental assessment. EPS is effectively 98% air and is made from a by-product. It is also lighter so taken across the whole life cycle can be shown to be highly economical with respect to energy usage. The focus of their attack should be directed towards those people who feel it is acceptable to litter and not the packaging itself.

“It’s a shame these superb chefs have focused their attentions on a single material which is 100% safe, is resource efficient and has excellent functional benefits. We have been delighted to work with the restaurant industry to achieve food waste reductions and would be pleased to work with them and the GLA to achieve improvements in waste management. We strongly believe that the chefs involved should have first discussed the management of used EPS fish boxes with their waste management contractors, rather than issue these very inaccurate comments.”

Food freshness

Further questioning the letter, Jane Bickerstaffe from the Industry Council for Packaging & Environment (INCPEN) suggested that the chefs were “losing sight of the issue”.

Commenting on the original edie article on the debate, Bickerstaffe said: “The chefs need fish and other foods kept fresh and in perfect condition on the journey from the sea to the restaurant … Polystyrene not only has the ability to keep the fish frozen or chilled and safe, it also has the lowest carbon footprint of any plastic type.

“[Polystyrene is] not easy to recycle because it is expensive financially and environmentally to collect, sort and clean it but in London value, as energy, is still recovered from over 21% of waste.”

edie put these comments back to the chefs who wrote the initial letter. The main signatory, Ed Baines, responded: “Although we prioritise suppliers who are committed to sustainability, some still use polystyrene since it is an engrained industry practice and often cheaper on the supply side.

“On the restaurant side, these savings are often not passed on as we have to pay for polystyrene waste to be collected. A ban, like San Francisco’s, is the only way to ensure that all industry suppliers don’t use this damaging material, which creates vast amounts of waste.”

Coffee cups

With polystyrene packaging often used to hold coffee in takeaway outlets, edie also spoke to coffee cup recycling business Simply Cups about the issue. The company’s co-founder Peter Goodwin said this debate brings to light a key question which is seemingly being missed in the debate: how food packaging has become ‘single-use’ in the first place, and what can be done to drive a circular economy?

“Once again, we see that there is far too much obsession about the material and its impact on reaching landfill or incineration when our focus should be about designing systems that can recycle the material and recover this lost resource,” Goodwin said.

“If we’ve learnt anything from the paper cup debacle, it is that consumers want to know what is happening to their food packaging packing waste at the end-of-life. Until we collaborate to solve this problem, we won’t have any answer to give them.”

YOUR view: should there be a polystyrene packaging ban in London?

This is the second big food packaging debate to surface in recent weeks. Late last week, the Liberal Democrats put forward the idea of a 5p coffee cup charge in a bid to win the war on coffee cup waste by replicating the “cultural shift” in consumer behaviour seen through the carrier bag charge.

Commenting on that issue, Goodwin from Simply Cups said the Lib Dems’ idea was “neither in the interest of retailers or consumers” and that more cost-efficient recycling solutions and VAT reduction incentives would be better solutions. Cast your vote on that issue here.

Alex Baldwin

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