Developing alternatives to single-use plastics
It’s the crisis that’s too big to waste – and it’s growing with every meal.
Faster than you may think, in fact. With every chesseburger, pre-packed salad and gourmet smoothie comes waste - six tons of plastic waste produced within the City of Sydney, every single day.
The recent closure of China's borders to the import of foreign recycling, particularly paper and plastic, the EU's proposal to ban single-use plastics across Europe, and the Greens’ “recycling reboot” policy which calls for phasing out single use plastics here in Australia all show that this issue isn’t limited to the City of Sydney, either.
It’s become increasingly clear that reducing the disposal rates of food containers and other single use priorities is a global priority.
Takeaway food containers are a major source of daily waste, especially in dense urban areas with high numbers of time-poor office workers. These containers are not designed for repeated use, due to their low quality.
While the traditional solution has been to encourage consumers to recycle takeaway plastic containers in the commonplace yellow bins sighted in every shopping centre, in the context of the China ban this isn’t the most effective way to combat this issue. With fewer markets for our recycled plastics, initiatives that search for alternatives to single-use takeaway containers are critical.
Solutions that involve actions higher up the ‘waste hierarchy’, such as the re-use of food containers, could be more effective in reducing waste and minimising other environmental impacts, and relieving the pressure on our recycling industry.
Funded by a City of Sydney Environmental Grant, ISF conducted research to assess four potential container schemes for introducing reusable food containers to food outlets in the CBD – a centralised scheme managed across the city, a semi-centralised scheme managed by shopping centre owners / outdoor precinct developers, a decentralised scheme where containers are owned by individual food outlets, or an individualised scheme where containers are owned by individual customers (similar to KeepCups).
To examine the feasibility of each of these schemes, criteria such as environmental benefits, operational and implementation costs, acceptance among customers and food outlets, and likely uptake of said schemes were estimated. These factors are key to the current use of disposable containers – and so are critical the success of any reusables scheme.
Reusable food containers are already in use around the world, including in the US, where the research drew from numerous case studies. However the containers used in the US, such as the Eco-Clamshell are significantly different in size and shape to current disposable containers in Australia, meaning that new containers might need to be designed for the Australian market.
The research found that the “semi-centralised” system (where shopping centres/precinct developers own the containers and manage the distribution to food outlets, collection from customers and cleaning) was the most viable reusable food container scenario to implement at present, given the improved environment benefits, combined with low costs of implementation and operation, and likely rates of uptake.
Reusable food container schemes are likely to provide real environmental benefits, and have the potential to be economically competitive with disposable containers. However, to validate these research findings, a trial of a reusable system should be undertaken in a suitable location, such as a shopping centre food court.
Such a trial would allow the convenience of the program and the behavioural responses of consumers and staff to be assessed, in order to more fully understand the business benefits and costs involved with implementing a semi-centralised reuse system.