The food firms fighting the ‘scourge’ of plastic waste from office workers' lunches

Ella Wills
Meal pot brand BOL is hoping to slash the amount of plastic in its packaging by 2019: BOL

A London lunch food firm has joined major players in the ready meals sector to announce plans to stem the tide of waste produced by office workers eating at their desks.

Lunch pot brand BOL is hoping to drastically reduce its plastic use by 2019 with a campaign that aims to make office workers rethink the way they dispose of their lunch packaging.

“We want to start getting people to see packaging as a resource, not a waste product,” says BOL founder and chief executive Paul Brown.

Compostable packaging firm Vegware told the Standard its plans to improve waste infrastructure in the UK and London – paving the way for lunchtime retailers to switch to more sustainable packaging in 2018.

It comes as major retailer Quorn announced it will cut non-recyclable black plastic trays from 90 per cent of its range by the end of June, with the remaining 10 per cent to be removed by the end of the year.

Vegware has developed compostable packaging as an alternative to plastic (Vegware)

Nearly four million tonnes of plastic waste are generated in the UK each year, according to trade organisation Plastics Europe.

BOL, which sells convenient plant-based meal pots in Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose, is one company that is lobbying against this “throw-away” culture.

In an effort to reduce the environmental impact of its speedy lunches, BOL is challenging customers to reuse its salad jars and soup pots rather than chucking them straight in the bin.

Using the hashtag #dontwastecreate, BOL asks customers to share their inventive new uses for the pots – designed to be 100 per cent reusable and recyclable - including storing leftovers, grains and spare change or even as a plant pot.

However, the firm is also seeking alternatives for its clear plastic packaging. Mr Brown, formerly of Innocent, admitted the brand needs to do more to reduce its plastic use as part of a wider shift away from plastic pollution sparked by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. “We see this as our responsibility as a sustainable business,” he says.

He revealed that the brand is developing a new innovation “that will contain next to no plastic” to go on sale in early 2019. BOL has also “light-weighted” it’s salad jars – using 10 per cent less plastic – and is working on ideas such as replacing plastics lids with aluminium, and switching out plastic forks for wooden.

BOL encourages customers to upcycle its plastic containers - to store food, or even as a plant pot (BOL)

It comes as larger businesses have pledged to cut plastic pollution in a bid to curb our unsustainable convenience culture. Prime Minister Theresa May in January vowed to eliminate the “scourge” of plastic waste by 2025 and pledged to slash production of single-use plastics. In April, more than 40 major companies, including Coca-Cola and Asda, signed a pact promising to rethink plastic use over the next seven years.

Led by sustainability campaign group WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), the UK Plastics Pact includes promises such as eliminating single-use packaging through innovation. Among those to make the pledge is Quorn, which will remove more than 290 tonnes of black plastic trays from its product line this month.

It follows similar pledges by Iceland, which in February launched two ready meal ranges in paper-based trays, and Waitrose, which will phase out own-label black plastic packaging by 2019.

An estimated 1.3 billion black plastic trays are used in ready meal packaging in the UK every year, it has been widely reported, but according to a 2017 report from WRAP sorting machines cannot detect the trays due to the carbon black pigment in the plastic. This means the majority of the waste material is sent to landfill sites rather than being recycled by local councils.

The majority of Quorn's meat free range will no longer be sold in black plastic trays from the end of June (Quorn)

Quorn chief executive Kevin Brennan said: “We had already been reducing the actual amount of packaging that we were using… But once we became aware of [black plastic] as a problem, we wanted to get out.”

Mr Brennan said Quorn will now be working with suppliers on how to move forward from black plastic. “We are telling our suppliers that we want more sustainable products,” he said. “We would expect over the next year or two there will be more innovation in this space.”

But entrepreneurs are already creating alternatives to fight the “war on plastic” in the food sector. Edinburgh-based Vegware has developed plant-based compostable packaging for the catering industry.

Plant-based compostable packaging is designed to be recycled with food waste (Vegware)

The firm makes disposables using PLA (polylactic acid), a compostable material made from plants, including coffee cup linings, sandwich windows, cold cups and deli containers. These are designed to be recycled with food waste – meaning leftovers from a ready-meal spag bol could be thrown away with in the container.

Unfortunately, disposing of compostable plastic is not as simple as tossing it into your garden. They need to be sent to an industrial composting facility, which can create the ideal conditions to break down the packaging. But right now, many do not accept PLA and composting collections are not available everywhere in the UK.

However, Vegware is working to improve UK composting infrastructure to increase access to biodegradable packaging for retailers. The firm launched its own composting collection service called Close the Loop for businesses in September, which it is seeking to roll out to England this year – with London named a priority region.

Vegware spokeswoman Lucy Frankel said: “Compostables are still relative newcomers compared to other materials, so trade collections aren’t available everywhere in the UK, but Vegware is actively changing that. London is a priority region for us to develop further, as there is huge demand from responsible businesses who want to Close the Loop.”

Vegware is currently accepted into Hackney Council’s residential and commercial food waste collections, and composted in North London, but the ambition is to ensure that collections are available to all London businesses, she added. So, it may not be too long before businesses across the capital are dishing up lunch in compostable pots.