As the issue of plastic waste takes centre stage, Andrew Hutchison and Colin Hutchison highlight how the use of single-use plastics in schools can be reduced

Innovative, efficient and cost-effective, plastic has become an integral part of life in the home, office and within industry. Yet on 24 October 2018, the European Parliament approved a new ban on single-use plastic items. From 2021, plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers will be banned. Plastic food containers are to be reduced by 25 per cent by 2025 and plastic bottles will have to be recycled at a rate of 90 per cent.

Over recent years, single-use plastics have become public enemy number one, destroying ecosystems, poisoning our oceans and the creatures that live in them. An estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, and of this, only nine per cent has been recycled. The rest is currently thrown into landfill and, according to a research study published in 2015, eight million tonnes of this ends up in our oceans every year. Research has also shown that 72 per cent of the UK’s drinking water, and over 100 types of seafood that we eat, are contaminated with microplastics.

So, the forthcoming plastics ban is undoubtedly a step in the right direction – but in the meantime, much more needs to be done on the ground. Within the food and drink industry, plastic-based food and drink cutlery and packaging is a real problem, and this is no better exemplified than in the school catering market.

In 2008, an education report by WRAP found that plastic bottles, food wrappers, containers and straws were being used in particularly high-volumes across schools, colleges and universities. At that time, the average secondary school produced over 71,000 tonnes of waste each academic year, and 17 per cent of this (roughly 12,000 tonnes) was from plastic alone. Since then, there has been a focus on trying to reduce these statistics, but as long as plastic still pervades in the canteen, the issue still remains.

Tackling the problem
Our clients in education often ask us, “What are you going to do about the use of single-use plastics?”

As caterers, we are keen to do our part. Over 50 per cent of our food products are now served in fully recyclable packaging and a significant portion of our meal deals have been adapted to lessen the amount of plastic used. In some schools, we’ve now taken plastic bottles off the menu completely so that students drink only tap water. In other schools, we supply drinks in aluminium cans or tetra-pak cartons instead.

By removing items such as water bottles from our meal deal menus, or substituting with costlier cans and cartons, it can have a detrimental effect on the bottom line for both client and caterer. So, in order for us to stay profitable, we need to get the balance right but also consider the need to keep school meals affordable for families.

At secondary level in particular, there is a significant demand for fast, grab ‘n’ go food options which involve significantly more packaging than a 17sit-down meal, so preparing all the food without packaging is not an option for many – which means that the packaging issue will always be with us.

Currently, while we try to source compostable cutlery and recyclable packaged foods wherever possible, much of the ‘recyclable’ packaging used by food manufacturers still contain elements of plastic, which makes recycling significantly harder. For example, cardboard sandwich boxes often include a thin plastic film lining which can’t be recycled, while drinks cartons come wrapped in plastic, and each pack comes with a plastic straw, encased in a plastic cover, which is attached by way of a plastic-derived adhesive.

But even if the plastic elements can in theory be recycled, there are still some sites without effective recycling systems – so packaging inevitably ends up in landfill anyway.

What more needs to be done?
Better recycling provision in schools would certainly be an advantage, so that students can dispose of their waste responsibly. There are many positive examples, but we now need to see this consistently across the board. On the whole, student-driven change in schools seems to manifest itself in better results. However, their entheusiasm can be dampened, for example when they are faced with very limited options from suppliers to substitute plastic bottled drinks. There is also a danger that when one proactive student group moves on, their initiatives will be forgotten. So, any good schemes brought in by students need to be written permanently into the school policy for the future in order to make a real difference over time.

Going forward, educating students about the plastic problem as part of the curriculum would also help facilitate change. When a student steering group is passionate about tackling the plastic problem, it’s great to see. However, it is not as easy as simply telling caterers to avoid packaging – we are doing our bit, but we cannot change everything on our own. Much more needs to be done.

We need government and local authority support, pressure on manufacturers, more legislation, increased plastic-free packaging options and better recycling facilities, and other initiatives too. A government ban on students bringing plastic bottles to school, for example, could also help significantly in the education sector.

If the whole of society, from manufacturers right through to consumers, can work together to bring about lasting change, it will transform the world we live in for the better. It is important that public awareness of the plastic problem stays in the spotlight, to keep the momentum moving in the right direction. With the right initiatives and in working together, there is certainly hope that the plastic issue will lessen over time.

[For a list of sources used in the creation of this article, please contact the editor.]

Andrew Hutchison and Colin Hutchison are Directors of Hutchison Catering. Hutchison Catering delivers first-class fresh-food catering and food management services within the business and education sectors.