Food in­dus­try tak­ing up war on plas­tic

Le­banese restau­rants en­deavor to join global cam­paign to re­duce, re­cy­cle waste

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Fed­er­ica Marsi

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.

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