Is sustainability a load of hot air?

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainability plastic straws

Related tags: Sustainability, Drinks, Plastic

Cutting out single-use plastics is the eco-issue du jour. But does the restaurant industry take sustainability seriously?

In practical terms, it is as if the pollution caused by single-use plastics did not exist before Blue Planet II. Suddenly, Michael Gove was declaring himself ‘haunted’ by said damage (as if it had never crossed his mind… ); children were earnestly lecturing their parents about plastic straws; and, after a frustrated Luke Holder got #chefsagainstplastics rolling, a wave of kitchens jumped on the bandwagon with heartfelt, if vague, promises to do something about plastics.

In June, the Sustainable Restaurant Association launched Unwrapping Plastic, an industry-specific guide to going plastic-free. Hopefully, this will encourage real change across the industry, of the kind Holder has enacted at Lime Wood Hotel, to add substance to all that online virtue-signalling.

The industry was quick to congratulate itself and exploit the PR of easy wins such as swapping paper for plastic straws, but now it has to follow the more difficult lead set by some obvious candidates (Spring has gone cling film-free, Leon is adopting bioplastic cutlery), and grapple with the knotty detail (note: many disabled people need flexible plastic straws).

Am I confident this will happen? Not particularly. Generally, the restaurant industry lacks pro-active zeal on sustainability. Plastic is a prime example. Prior to Blue Planet II, where did kitchens think all that plastic they were chucking was going? Now they do know, why are many still moving with tectonic slowness on other sustainability issues?

As a very conservative estimate, the UK has about 105,000 public food premises (takeaways, restaurants, pubs, hotels, cafés), yet just over 7,000 of those are SRA members. Clearly, sustainability remains a niche issue, despite the damage the restaurant industry is doing to the planet, and itself.

According to figures from the waste charity WRAP, the foodservice and hospitality sector wastes 1m tonnes of food each year. Some 75% of that waste is avoidable, and of the nine sub-categories in that sector, restaurants are the worst offenders. Restaurants create 22% of that waste, estimated to cost 97p for each meal it sells: 21% of that waste is spoiled stock, 45% occurs during prep and 34% from consumer plate waste, with carbs, such as rice and chips, the biggest single source of leftovers.

You may argue that things have changed in the past few years. But the fact that, between 2012 and 2015, operators signed up to WRAP’s Hospitality and Food Service Agreement failed to meet their collective target of recycling/ composting 70% of waste, illustrates where we are at (they achieved 56%).

We hear a lot of great new ideas in sustainability, but from recycling cooking oil to looking at the concept of using ex-laying hens as meat, these tend to come in fashionable waves and gain more media coverage than they do actual traction. Truly game-changing initiatives inevitably come from a tiny minority of self-motivated restaurants that are doing most of the heavy lifting.

Instead, the industry should be recalibrating how it works in a definitive way. For instance, where are the mainstream restaurants taking a radical approach to sustainability by reducing portion sizes? Or ditching obviously wasteful dishes? Where are the big brands, those that have the muscle to make controversial changes, designing smaller menus that use far less fish, meat and dairy, and every last scrap of a reduced core of perishable, seasonal ingredients?

Fundamentally, no one is willing to publicly admit that, as currently devised, restaurants are ecologically problematic. Each year, UK restaurant food waste creates just as much CO2 as running 400,000 cars. Make that 2m cars for the whole hospitality and foodservice sphere. If you think by tackling plastic you have waste all wrapped up, you are sorely mistaken.

This column first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.​ Follow Tony on Twitter @naylor_tony

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