In summary Single use plastic utensils have become an environmental menace. Sustainable alternatives are growing in number as foodservice businesses look to resolve this issue.
Identified To address the growing single-use plastic pollution problem in their city, three major fast food chains in Hong Kong, Café de Coral, Fairwood and Maxim’s, launched an incentive scheme in November 2018, giving customers who opted not to collect disposable knives, forks and spoons along with their takeout orders a complimentary set of reusable cutlery – a reward for doing their part in saving the environment from the growing single-use plastic pollution problem. A month later, the three outlets once again worked together, along with worldwide organization Greenpeace, to extend a HK$3 discount to diners who brought their own utensils to the establishment.
This year, what was once a restaurant-focused campaign has turned into a citywide movement in Hong Kong. August 2019 marked the beginning of a successful “plastic-free community” initiative where 180 stores and restaurants in the Sha Tin district put up stickers indicating they were plastic-free zones and offered special privileges to those who brought their own food and drink containers. More cities are poised to follow suit in the country, according to a Greenpeace campaigner.
These pocket examples, happening simultaneously in different parts of the world, reflect a substantial lack in eco-friendly disposable tableware options in the food service industry today. Facing the reality that a lot of commuters and office-workers may not have reusable utensils with them at all times, the demand for more sustainable and effective single-use dining implements – from green straws that won’t turn soggy to leakproof bio-plastic takeout cups that keep your drink fresh – is one of the major drivers behind the development of a new breed of cutlery, cups and containers that edge out their outdated precursors in form, function, as well as financial viability. Asian Consumer Intelligence (ACI) scours the pan-Asian region for game changing innovations in this category and puts the spotlight on players which are forging ahead in the utensil game.
We look no further than Japan to find a famous burger chain that recently made a switch from plastic disposable flatware to high-grade paper-based cutlery. Mos Burger has earned a reputation for being a “healthier” fast food chain because of its usage of farm-fresh ingredients and lower-carb options. The internationally successful enterprise began its plastic-free transition in February this year starting with five of its Tokyo outlets and neighbouring prefectures, with plans to roll out its green initiative to the rest of its 250 doors nationwide by 2020.
Mos Burger is also known to use bio-plastic cups for its cold beverage line-up. Made of a vegetable-derived polylactic acid, the biodegradable Green Promax cups are not only as strong as plastic but offer the same clarity in order to convey freshness of the product. In previous trend research findings, ACI identified several Japanese retailers whose modification from opaque to transparent RTD cups resulted in a significant growth in product sales. This particular container’s non-cloudy characteristic, achieved through breakthrough technology from packaging manufacturer Asahi Kasei Pax, marks a significant advancement in the general shift to more sustainable versions of the industry’s utensil arsenal.
According to an article in the Journal of Graphic Engineering and Design published in December 2017, a scientific study confirms that the degree of packaging transparency directly correlates to the level of product attractiveness for the consumer. Where previous plastic material combinations have resulted in murky colors, Asahi Kasei Pax’s eco-friendly cup resembles the cloudless appeal of plastic but degrades swiftly when put in a composter (although costs 20% more than its non-decomposing counterparts).
Moving on to South Korea, we find another groundbreaking evolution involving the straw – arguably the most controversial drinking tool of today. With plastic straws practically banned in dozens of countries around the world as it contributes to the eight million tons of plastic poisoning marine life annually, establishments and consumers who want to take the first step in the path to sustainability often begin by swearing off this tiny yet toxic utensil. Seoul-based company Yeonjigonji proposes that a better solution may not be to get rid of straws altogether, but to make them from more earth-based sustainable sources.
Founder and CEO Kwang-Pil Kim has successfully developed the first drinking straws from rice flour and tapioca powder in October 2018. Using Vietnamese rice for its less-sticky trait, he was able to design a working straw that was not only able to fully decompose in less than 100 days, but was also safe to eat. The edible straw is less pliable than plastic straws but just as sturdy. Although the company has already secured contracts to export to Malaysia, Canada and Singapore, the price remains to be six times more than the traditional straw. “If we can produce 2 to 2.5 billion rice straws a month, we’ll be able to cut the production cost by around 120 percent,” according to Kim.
Despite higher expenses, companies such as these are still convinced that there is a space for them in an increasingly discerning and environmentally-conscious market. According to a 2015 Nielsen report, 66% of consumers globally are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. Even more notable is that 73% of Millennials indicated the same sentiment. Another Asian case study conducted by Mumbai-based Bizongo packaging solutions called Packaging and Consumer Behaviour: 2020 found that “84% of consumers are willing to pay an additional amount of up to 3 Indian Rupees for sustainable packaging.”
In Australia, we have another forward-thinking approach to recycling takeaway cups from one of the largest paper packaging manufacturers Detpak. With talks of a complete ban on single-use coffee cups by 2023 brewing in South Australia, the Aussie brand launched their RecycleMe Series for coffee cups in November 2018 to curb the rising number of takeaway cups that end up in landfills.
Their patented cup is the first in the world that can be fully recycled into paper due to its unique waterproof lining. Unlike non-biodegradable plastic linings, Detpak’s mineral-based lining has been specially fabricated so that it can be easily removed from the cup during the recycling procedure – a feature that other “compostable” cups don’t have. “The advantage is it can run through standard paper pulping equipment and doesn’t require any additional investment at the recycling plant.” says Detpak General Manager of Marketing and Innovation Tom Lunn.
The second part of the pioneering approach is guaranteeing the actual collection of used cups, linings and lids through a partnership with waste collection company Shred-X. By installing collection stations at strategic points in areas where the cups are served, Detpak ensures a successful end-to-end solution. In July 2019, Detpak launched the Precision Series takeaway cups with the RecycleMe lining in the UK through a latte art competition for baristas. The new Precision Series cups have been cleverly designed so that their measurements are more aligned with an outlet’s in-house coffee cups. This makes for a more consistent coffee experience for customers, as baristas are better guided by measurements in preparing coffee.
So what? While the ideal scenario still remains to be that the use of reusable utensils puts a stop to non-essential waste altogether, the focus on creating more sustainable single-use cutlery and container alternatives can certainly help spur more eco-conscious habits among consumers. Seaweed has been stirring excitement in the green packaging and utensil category as manufacturers such as Evoware from Indonesia are now finding ways to replicate the flexibility and feel of plastic while remaining 100% biodegradable and water-dissolvable. This functional benefit of seaweed used as a straw material, for instance, gives it a substantial advantage over those that are edible and eco-friendly but lack in convenience and durab