Food industry taking up war on plastic
Lebanese restaurants endeavor to join global campaign to reduce, recycle waste
BEIRUT: Of the 8 million tons of plastic flowing every year into the oceans worldwide, almost half is estimated to come from fast food.
At this rate, some researchers forecast that oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
As the backlash against plastic waste grows, however, companies are beginning to consider more sustainable options for their packaging – and, slowly but steadily, this mindset is trickling down to Lebanon.
Off the wave of a global campaign to eliminate plastic straws, Lebanese eatery Roadster Diner recently announced that, as of March 31, it will be serving all its drinks straw-free unless expressly requested by customers.
“We’ve been running [the campaign #InGoodHands] to show our customers that we care about them. … [Then] we decided to take it a step further and focus on the environment,” Roadster’s marketing manager Manuel Wazen told The Daily Star. “On a broader scale, we are thinking about how to reduce packaging.”
“The Last Plastic Straw” global grass-roots campaign, launched by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, raised awareness around the fact that the U.S. alone produces over 500 million plastic straws every day that later make their way into landfill.
The campaign was fueled by a viral YouTube video of a group of marine biologists dislodging a straw from a turtle’s nostril. By calling on people to say no to straws and save turtles, it has since led several businesses worldwide to provide straws to clients only upon request.
Roadster’s move so far has received mixed reactions. “When we first announced this on social media, we did receive some backlash from customers, [saying] they were not used to drinking without straws, or they didn’t like to drink straight from the cup,” Wazen said, but added that others had welcomed the initiative with enthusiasm.
The challenge is not only a matter of changing consumers’ minds, as Lebanese restaurants also face logistical obstacles to achieving environmental sustainability due to market gaps. Health food chain 5 A Day has adopted a sustainable approach since its inception in 2011, and has had to confront a number of hurdles since.
“It is still very tough to combine the recycling and the sales,” Nassib Haddad, owner of 5 A Day, told The Daily Star. “At first we placed recycling bins so that our customers would get used to [the act of] recycling. But we don’t have a [company] that comes every day to pick up that low volume of recyclables,” Haddad said, adding that saving the material in between weekly or monthly pickups is logistically impossible without abundant storage space.
The company made a point of packaging its liquid products with PET plastic, which can be easily recycled into food-grade material, and uses paper bags for deliveries.
“We were the first ones to use craft paper bags,” Haddad said, adding the price of paper bags is double that of plastic bags. However, growing awareness among their customers is helping bridge the gap.
“We have clients calling us to ask if they can bring back the bags and we tell them [that] of course [they can]. Some customers also ask for no cutlery in their delivery,” Haddad said. “Definitely more and more people understand the reasoning behind [our choices] – and they give us a push to do more.”
According to LibanPack, a nonprofit representing stakeholders from the food and packaging sectors in Lebanon, package reduction is a philosophy increasingly embraced by food chains, but Lebanon still faces a number of obstacles.
“The delivery industry in Lebanon is shifting to craft paper and they are even using less ink because it’s easier to recycle them,” director Soha Atallah, who has been addressing key issues across the packaging value chain since LibanPack’s inception in 2008, told The Daily Star.
“Let’s face it, [food delivery] companies are for profit. So when they change their packaging to sustainable packaging they do it not because they’re really caring about the environment, but because their consumers care about the environment.”
Striking a balance between food safety and sustainability, however, is not always easy in a country where fewer options are available. For instance, thermoforming material, used to make black boxes with transparent lids, contains highly polluting toxic components that are released in the environment when landfilled.
Recycling it is still a challenge in Lebanon due to the scarcity of industries that process the material.
“Internationally, the trend that is picking up is [that of] oxobiodegradable packaging – or substituting oil material with starch. But the technology has not arrived in Lebanon yet,” Atallah said.
“I always tell companies that if they [want to invest in this new technology], people will buy. But Lebanon is a small market and it is not feasible to invest in new machinery for [low] quantities,” Atallah said, adding that government incentives have been key in stimulating this market abroad.
In the meantime, Lebanese companies have been innovating to find alternative ways to profit from all kinds of materials. According to Arc en Ciel, one of the organizations collecting recyclables from food chains in Lebanon, new markets are opening up for the sale of plastics classified as Nos. 5 and 7, which also includes thermoforming.
“We are in contact with several industries for recycling the delivery boxes, it’s happening bit by bit because industries are coming up with new solutions to recycle them,” Mario Goraieb, Arc en Ciel’s environment program manager, said.
By collecting material sorted at the source, including ministries, restaurants and households, Arc en Ciel prevents 1,600 tons of recyclables from ending up in landfill annually.
“You do not get a lot of money from [the sale of recyclables],” Goraieb said, adding that Arc en Ciel has to charge a fee for the collection.
While the organization is barely breaking even, Goraieb said waste would be a boon for municipalities.
“[If the municipalities took charge] what they will be having is a reduction of cost from treating waste,” he said. “But unfortunately, for the moment, recycling is still limited to [grass-roots] initiatives.”
Trash on the shore in Khaldeh. Some researchers have forecast that oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.