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Catering conundrum

Vegware sees compostable packaging and food waste recycling as the first step to zero waste. Its recycling consultant Eilidh Brunton explains why

Vegware is an Edinburgh-based eco-packaging manufacturer and distributor founded by Joe Frankel in 2008. The firm started small with only two members of staff in 2009 but has grown to more than 30. This year alone we have won 10 awards – including best small business in the UK and the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development. 

The main issue with conventional food service packaging is that it is often made of a mix of materials – think of a coffee cup for example, made of card, lined with plastic, with a plastic lid. This is already difficult to recycle into anything of quality, but once you fill it with coffee it becomes almost impossible. Food contamination is a real barrier to high quality recycling and as a result, after use, most foodservice packaging is destined for landfill – or at best, incineration.

Vegware has a practical solution to this environmental issue – we create eco catering disposables which can be recycled together with food waste. The very nature of foodservice packaging means it will be covered in food. But with our compostable packaging this isn’t an issue as the whole package can go in the food bin. After use, Vegware packaging becomes a resource rather than a waste. Also, by removing the messy sticky food and contaminated packaging from the general bin, everything else is left cleaner and easier to recycle. We often say that compostable packaging and food waste recycling is the first step to zero waste. 

We make our range of fully certified compostable products from a range of plastic-free, renewable or recycled materials. PLA or cornstarch is used to make clear items such as cold cups and deli containers, as well as forming a waterproof lining for hot cups and for making various plastic-like films. Our hot lids and cutlery are also made of PLA but with a chalk filler to add increased heat resistance. We make plates, bowls and takeaway containers from bagasse, the waste product of the sugar cane industry. We also use wood pulp and sustainably-sourced paper and board. 

We believe that it is vital to understand the sustainable disposal route for our packaging and as such have long had links with the organics recycling sector.  We continually run trials with organics recycling facilities to test that our claims are accurate and to build trust in the Vegware name within the waste sector. As a result, Vegware products are regularly being processed along with food waste in commercial operations right across the UK. 

Of course compostable packaging is designed for commercial composting, and the UK’s many in-vessel composting facilities are perfect for this. However, we have found that many AD facilities are adding an aerobic stage to reduce landfill charges by composting cornstarch liners.

Vegware recognises that you can’t sell packaging without being able to advise customers on what they can do with it after use. While researching food waste collection services on behalf of our customers, we found that existing databases were out of date and there was no single source of information about food waste recycling. We decided to fill this gap and began picking up the phone and speaking to anyone who could collect or process food waste in the UK. 

With the information we gathered, we launched the Food Waste Network, a free to use matchmaking service for any UK business seeking food waste recycling services. The Food Waste Network is mapping, monitoring and promoting the entire organics recycling industry and is an online hub for sharing food waste news and stories. We really see ourselves as the link between food waste producing organisations and the recycling sector and aim to make food waste recycling more consumer-friendly and more easily accessible for all businesses. 

Here at Vegware, sustainability is at the root of what we do right from the packaging we produce to the additional services we offer. In addition to the Food Waste Network, Vegware also offers its customers access to our in-house Zero Waste Support Services. Consumer confusion over which bin to use leads to contamination, which means extra processing and higher costs for all, so communicating with users of our packaging is vital. 

Our Zero Waste Support Team - comprising myself, and our communications and design team - address this by creating bespoke bin signage and communications material tailored exactly to the individual’s needs. With exact pictures and clear explanations of the packaging, more products make it into the right bin, thus reducing problems faced by the waste processor. We can also offer waste audits, cost analysis of moving to zero waste to landfill, and propose new recycling initiatives. 

One success story of our support is a microbrewery and beer café in Edinburgh called the Hanging Bat. With our help and the introduction of additional recycling including food waste, it has reduced waste to landfill by 90%, has cut its weekly waste costs and is fully compliant with the Waste (Scotland) Regulations which come into force on 1 January 2014. Its achievements have even been recognised in their nomination for a Footprint Award.

We get an extremely positive reaction from consumers. People enjoy using compostable disposables and see it as an easy way to demonstrate their business’ commitment to the environment while also avoiding rising landfill costs. We feed this further by providing eco audits with all orders showing carbon saved, virgin materials saved, and the kilos of used packaging a customer can divert from landfill with organics recycling. Businesses can then communicate these figures to their customers and use them as evidence of their corporate and social responsibility. In 2012, all our UK customers saved 464 tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 257 flights from London to New York.

Despite being founded just at the start of the biggest global economic recession for 70 years, Vegware has seen monumental growth. Currently on target for 15-fold UK growth since 2009 and also seeing huge growth in international sales, you could say Vegware is a success story of the recession. We have operations in the US, South Africa and Australia, and are enjoying huge demand from high-volume users including the UK’s biggest contract caterers and distributors, showing that there is a demand for more sustainable, recyclable products in foodservice. 

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