Polystyrene packaging and microbeads are no strangers to controversy; both materials harm marine life and can enter the food chain, which has prompted concern from consumers and advocacy groups. Cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. have gone so far as to ban polystyrene packaging – and now four London-based chefs are calling for the same in England’s capital.
Top chefs led by Ed Baines, who co-owns the Randall & Aubin seafood restaurant in Soho, recently sent a letter to Mayor Sadiq Khan calling for a city-wide ban on non-biodegradable polystyrene packaging. The letter, which was co-signed by chefs Theo Randall and Mark Hix, food critic William Sitwell, and chef-turned-anti-waste-campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, discusses the environmental problems with polystyrene.
“This white foamy material might seem harmless, but it’s not,” the letter reads. “This move could really make a difference, so the signatories of this letter would encourage you and the rest of London to help support this cause, and take us one step closer to a zero waste, clean, green London.”
In the letter, Baines describes his experience receiving truck-loads of produce in polystyrene containers when it could just as easily be packaged using more environmentally-friendly materials. He notes that London has lower recycling rates than the UK average, and that a ban on polystyrene could encourage the use of more recyclable materials. Furthermore, polystyrene acts as a sponge for pollutants in the ocean and is often ingested by fish. Baines writes, “These are the same fish that end up on your plate!”
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“The problems that come with polystyrene are not exclusive to London,” the letter adds. “It is estimated that globally around 80 billion polystyrene coffee cups are thrown away each year.”
Despite that more environmentally friendly polystyrene-like materials are being developed and alternative waste management methods are being explored, polystyrene waste remains a big problem. But the Foodservice Packaging Association’s executive director Martin Kersh says a ban is not the answer.
“This is a strange and perhaps misplaced request coming from such eminent chefs,” Kersh told Packaging News, noting the benefits of using the material for food preservation. “Polystyrene is not difficult to recycle and facilities exist enabling this to be achieved and a valuable end material is produced, indeed a new recycling facility has just opened in Wales. The chef’s have also failed to consider the full life cycle of EPS in their damning environmental assessment.”
“Sadiq does not have the power to enforce a ban on polystyrene packaging in London but he is extremely supportive of initiatives to help boost recycling and make London cleaner,” a spokesperson for the Mayor of London said in a statement. “He will be asking his new deputy mayor for environment to deliver a number of ambitious proposals that encourage better waste management and tackle pollution across the city.”
Meanwhile, the UK government’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is calling for a national ban on microbeads by the end of 2017. 86 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment every year from the UK cosmetics industry, and between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe every year.
“The Government is clear that it wants to work with other European countries to get a Europe-wide ban on microbeads and that is what we’re recommending as a best-case scenario,” Committee chair Mary Creagh told Edie. “But in the event that Brexit makes that difficult, we are recommending a national ban.”
The EAC is also demanding a clear labeling scheme be introduced during the transitional period.
Many companies have already made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads from their products: Unilever and adidas have already phased them out, while others such as L’Oréal, Johnson & Johnson and P&G aim to eliminate them by the end of 2017. Biobased alternatives are also on their way to market.
“We welcome the efforts that the industry has taken but there are problems with them because some companies have not engaged with those efforts, others will just hitch a free ride on the back of the people that are doing the right thing,” Creagh added. “We want a level playing field for all cosmetics companies across all products and all types of plastics.”