Virtuous circles: reducing plastic packaging

Categories: Behind the stalls

Fortnum & Mason food writer of the year Clare Finney on how Borough Market and its traders are taking a holistic approach to environmental sustainability. This time: reducing plastic packaging

“The problem is big chains have educated consumers to expect waste as part of take away food and drink,” laments Eduardo, the founder of The Colombian Coffee Company. “We expect stirrers, lids, napkins and straws for every drink we order, even though it will last about two minutes.” It adds up: river clean-ups earlier this year revealed that single-use plastic makes up 60 per cent of litter in the River Thames. We’ve all seen that David Attenborough programme, with the albatross parents feeding their chicks plastic unknowingly. By offering porcelain cups as an alternative to paper ones with plastic lids, not only are customers more likely to take the time to savour their coffee and engage in conversation, “I hope customers will think twice and go for the sustainable option,” Eduardo continues. After all, where better to start reducing plastic than with that we consume most regularly: food and drink?

It’s a challenge Borough Market has met with alacrity. This week marks two years since the Market installed a series of water fountains. Each has three streams—two for drinking from, one for refilling water bottles—and in the months following their installation, the Market began working towards phasing out plastic water bottles entirely. Those in need of a bottle can buy a metal, Borough Market-branded refillable one—made from recycled materials—from The Borough Market Store, where they sit alongside strong, reusable bags of jute and canvas so customers can avoid any other form of plastic packaging.

Porcelain cups

A culture of waste
Not that there is much around. Eduardo is right: big chains have encouraged a culture of unnecessary waste, but it’s a culture that Market traders, at least, are turning away from. Where possible packaging in Borough Market is biodegradable, compostable—or indeed optional, with customers actively encouraged to bring their own bags, containers, coffee cups and cutlery. “We used to have entirely plastic packaging—forks, containers and so on—but we’ve replaced it with compostable containers and wooden forks,” explains Callum of Bao Borough. “They can go into the food waste bins.” There’s always more you can do, says Sandra at The Natural Smoothie Co, “but we’ve plant starch-based cups, which will compost, and we encourage customers to bring their own containers too.”

The bad news, says Nick Stokes of Elpiniki (formerly known as Gourmet Goat) is that the UK is “not equipped when it comes to composting facilities.” Of all the compostable, plant starch-based containers and cutlery sold in the UK, only a small percentage will be composted. The rest will be sent to incinerators or landfill. “You could throw it on your compost heap, but it would take over a year to disintegrate,” Nick explains. “To compost it properly, you need proper facilities.” These composting plants are on their way, we are told—and when they arrive, the Market will be ready. In the meantime, the compostable, plant starch-based packaging Elpiniki and its fellow plastic-phobic traders currently use remains the best option. “It burns cleanly in an incinerator, without the toxic emissions like you get with plastic, and in landfill it will break down easily.”

Reduce and reuse
Of course, as Elpiniki has proven, there are many ways to reduce plastic before your food even gets to the user. “Where we reduce packaging is in our supply chain, by buying in bulk,” says Nick, “so 25 kilo bags of wheat, rather than two kilos.” One of their meat suppliers uses a form of packaging which is reusable: “There’s a cardboard outer, which we can recycle, and a foil foam inner we can send back to them.” Their halloumi supplier reuses his packaging. It can seem, at times, a drop in the ocean when you consider the scale of the problems we face—but at least it’s a drop of plastic-free water. “It’s never straightforward, but we keep chipping away and reinventing.”

Nor does the Market’s war on plastic stop there for, not content with simply cleaning their own backyard, they’re helping us clean ours, too. In the Borough Market Store you can find natural beeswax wraps, handmade by local beekeepers Bermondsey Street Bees exclusively for the Market. Made of 100 per cent cotton fabric that has been infused with food-grade beeswax, pine resin and natural oils, they are a washable and reusable alternative to clingfilm, being pliable, slightly tacky, and odour free. At the end of their useful life (typically a year or more) they can safely be composted.

Meanwhile, at Oliveology, Marianna and Lida are encouraging customers to reuse their olive oil tins and olive pots: as lunchboxes (the pots have tight lids, and are perfect for soups, stews or fruit salads), to buy more olives or pate in, “or even to grow plants in,” Lida continues. They are, after all, far less unsightly than the black seedling boxes you get at garden centres—and they even come with their own hashtag: #oliveologygardeners.