Packaging wars move on to polystyrene as chefs call for ban

Packaging wars move on to polystyrene as chefs call for ban
Ed Baines
A group of prominent chefs have called on London Mayor Sadiq Khan to ban polystyrene packaging in Britain’s capital, calling it the ‘scourge of Soho’.

Ed Baines, founder of Randall & Aubin in London’s Soho district, has written the letter, co-signed by fellow chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (whose own anti-waste campaign saw him named winner of Resource’s Hot 100 last year), Mark Hix and Theo Randall, as well as food critic William Sitwell.

The letter calls on Khan to follow American cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC in banning the ‘unsightly and environmentally damaging method of packaging’, which it suggests is hampering recycling efforts in London.

‘I see more waste in the streets of Soho than ever before. This waste is filling up the small amounts of space we have at the restaurants and spilling out onto the streets, every day,’ Baines writes in the letter.

‘Much of this waste consists of excessive packaging that is not biodegradable or recyclable. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is polystyrene, which is delivered in its truck loads, delivering produce that could just as easily be packaged using more environmentally friendly materials.’

Polystyrene containers, he says, can only be used once, and once food products are delivered, the containers are broken up and left to be collected at a cost.

This is not just an issue of packaging waste caused by suppliers however, as Baines quotes research that suggests around 80 billion polystyrene cups are thrown away globally every year.

Baines writes: ‘Polystyrene makes up a large amount of the debris in our oceans, seas and rivers contaminating fish stocks. [It] acts like a sponge so picks up pollutants in the ocean, which can then be ingested by fish. These are the same fish that end up on your plate!’

Hospitality sector could herald ‘clean, green London’

In the lead-up to the London mayoral elections earlier this year, Khan pledged to make the capital ‘one of the world’s greenest cities’ through measures including ‘reinvigorating’ recycling efforts.

Baines suggests that the hospitality sector, which uses ‘mountains’ of polystyrene, should be leading this charge: ‘In London, recycling rates are lower than the UK average. As an industry and as residents of bustling Soho, we should be doing everything we can to encourager London’s bars, hotels, restaurants and shops to reuse and recycle more…

‘This move could really make a difference, so the signatories of this letter would encourage you and the rest of London to help support this cause, and take us one step closer to a zero waste, clean, green London.’

No power to enforce ban

Responding to the letter, a spokesperson for Khan said: “Sadiq does not have the power to enforce a ban on polystyrene packaging in London but he is extremely supportive of initiatives to help boost recycling and make London cleaner.

“He will be asking his new deputy mayor for environment to deliver a number of ambitious proposals that encourage better waste management and tackle pollution across the city.”

Khan announced last week that he had appointed Shirley Rodrigues as Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy to oversee plans for creating an ‘Energy for Londoners’ policy, aimed at increasing recycling rates and the production of low carbon energy in the city.

Packaging association calls campaign 'misguided'

Meanwhile, the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA) has criticised the campaign, stating that expanded polystyrene is needed to keep food fresh and is perfectly safe.

FPA Executive Director Martin Kersh says that the chefs have failed to consider the full life cycle of the material and how much energy and resources they save by protecting the food product it is used to transport.

He also questioned suggestions that polystyrene transfers pollutants, adding: “Strawberries and wine contain styrene and we look forward to an announcement from the chefs to say that they will be removing both of these items from their menus.”

Kersh pointed out that the polystyrene packaging is recyclable with London’s Billingsgate Market operating a machine that converts expanded polystyrene fish boxes to a melted material suitable for plastic items like CD cases.

“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. It’s a shame these superb chefs have focused their attentions on a single material which is 100 per cent 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 Greater London Assembly to achieve improvements in waste management.”

This latest packaging campaign comes after Fearnley-Whittingstall used his BBC series Hugh’s War on Waste to rail against disposable paper cups used predominantly by coffee chains and cafes.

An estimated 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away in the UK every year, with just 0.25 per cent being recycled by the one operational recycling facility capable of processing the complicated paper/plastic structure of the cups.

Last month, a ‘Paper Cup Manifesto’ was launched and signed by 30 signatories including Costa, Caffè Nero and Starbucks, committing them to significantly increase paper cup recovery and recycling rates by 2020.