Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Take-away

There aren’t too many positives about working in isolation at home, but one of them is that I have had time to investigate more thoroughly some of the issues which are thrown up when researching for forthcoming exhibitions.  Starting with the inevitable Google search, I found myself reading through government reports and newspaper articles and went down many research rabbit holes, only to emerge at the other side almost as confused.  So, I am trying to make sense of what I have been reading about the subject of the disposal of single-use fast food or take-away packaging with a view to including this topic in MoDiP’s Beside the Sea exhibition.

 FC1 Fish and Chips box 

In 2019 the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a report on Plastic food and drink packaging. It referenced a U.N. Environment Report that stated foam take-away containers were in the list of the top ten most common single-use plastics found in the environment. 

Awareness of the adverse environmental impact that packaging such as clam-shell boxes and trays made from EPS (expanded polystyrene), commonly used to serve take-away fish and chips, has had over the years, has led to a recent move towards using biodegradable and compostable alternatives.  But it seems that they too are not without their problems. 

The problem with containers made from EPS, it seems, is that EPS is very difficult and not financially viable to recycle. It is inevitably contaminated by food waste and often ends up in landfill or in the environment where it can cause considerable damage. These containers were a popular choice for fast food businesses as they were cheap to manufacture, were lightweight and had excellent insulating properties.  More recently there has been a move towards the use of alternatives made from bio-mass materials such as Bagasse, which is a by-product of the sugar industry, and which has similar properties. But currently this type of material is also fraught with difficulties when it comes to its disposal. 

Bagasse is compostable with the rate of decomposition depending on the composting conditions. However, it is thought that even if the consumer is made aware that their container is made of such material, there will be confusion over how to dispose of it.  It all depends on local infrastructure and the type of composting facilities they use.  If mistakenly included with regular recycling then it risks contaminating that batch.  It seems to me that clear material identification and clear instructions are needed for the efficient disposal of this type of packaging, and like all other packaging there needs to be a national consensus on what is recycled.

The House of Commons report concluded that:

“Although industrially compostable plastic packaging is appealing as an alternative to conventional plastics, the general waste management infrastructure to manage it is not yet fit for purpose.  In addition, we are concerned that consumers are confused about how to dispose of compostable packaging, particularly if there is no dedicated compostable waste bin available.  We therefore don’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage.”

So, it still feels like there is a long way to go, both with managing recycling and with my research, but who would have thought that reading about rubbish could be so absorbing!

 

Pam Langdown

Documentation Officer

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