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Making your Business more Eco-friendly

A Brief Guide to Switching to more Eco-Friendly Catering Supplies

Why is plastic waste so problematic?

Plastic as we know it has only existed for the last 60-70 years, but in that time it has transformed everything - clothing, catering, product design, engineering and retailing.
Many types of plastic are designed to last for a very long time so much so that nearly all the plastic ever created still exists in some form today  (a Styrofoam cup will take 50years or more to degrade) . If we carry on as we are, roughly 12bn tonnes of plastic will exist in landfills AND in the natural environment by 2050. It's almost unbelievable, but worldwide 1M plastic drinks bottles are bought every hour - that's 20,000 per second, unfortunately, less than 50% are recycled.

On present projections, by 2050 there will be more tonnes of plastic waste in the sea than fish - Ellen Macarthur Institue

If you haven’t done so already then now is the time to prioritise making your business more eco-friendly. Switching to biodegradable catering disposables is one way to reduce damage to the environment and its vulnerable ecosystems. Cutting the use of petrochemical-based plastics and other non-recyclable waste  will contribute toward a greener future with environmental, social and economic benefits as well as having a positive positive effect on your business’s standing.

Proposed legislation for reducing waste will shift responsibility from consumers to producers.

Chefswarehouse offers a range of more eco-friendly alternative products that are compostable, biodegradable,  environmentally benign or recyclable. For advice on specific or bulk requirements, please contact us directly for a quote or more information.

What is Eco-friendly?

The terminology is often misunderstood and the subject is not without complexity so here we offer some explanation and suggestions about how your business can become more eco-friendly and be more environmentally responsible.

Leave nothing but footprints in the sand - becoming more eco-friendly

Ideally, leave nothing but ‘footprints in the sand’ meaning that your business activities should leave no legacy of waste or pollutants for present and future generations to clear up. The starting point is to look at the consequences of what you are doing now – examine what waste products your business currently generates - where and how do they end up - and identify the scope for reduction  and improvement. Remember, although your business may dispose of its own waste responsibly ….your customers, (consumers) may be less meticulous about disposing of litter that came from you. 

Best Outcome

The very best outcome is that all your catering disposables and consumables are made of materials that will completely biodegrade and decompose naturally with no pollution, The residues from the natural recycling process are compost and nutrients returned to the soil in a matter of weeks or months.

Worst Outcome

Reducing plastic catering waste

The worst outcome – as we have seen from so many features and documentaries such as Blue Planet  2 – is where inorganic, man-made materials such as plastics are sent to landfill or worse littered carelessly or even deliberately released into the environment. Many such materials will take hundreds if not thousands of years to degrade and can produce chemical pollutants that damage the environment to the detriment of wildlife and our own food chain. 

For sea birds and larger marine creatures like turtles, dolphins and seals, the danger comes from being entangled in plastic debris and mistaking plastic for food. Turtles and many fish cannot distinguish between feeding on plastic bags and jellyfish and once consumed, plastics cause internal blockages often results in death. Plastic waste also accumulates in, and damages, the digestive systems of sea birds and whales - again often fatal. 

Over time, very slowly, plastic waste does degrade and break down into tiny micro-fragments but these too are now causing much concern.

It's Time to Take Action

OK so what can your business do to help turn this situation around? Between these best and worst outcomes, is a scale of eco-friendliness and we suggest that, wherever possible, businesses should choose the most environmentally benign option achievable.

1. Best Practice

Compostable catering waste - replacing plastics with natural products

Where possible choose products made of natural biodegradable materials that are fully compostable without need of specialist waste processing so even if they are carelessly discarded by consumers, they will break down naturally by soil microorganisms and returned as composted organic matter. These products should be made from materials from sustainable sources.

Recommended product materials: wood (e.g. birch), palm leaves, paper & cardboard (unlined, not coated or treated with oil-based plastic films or chemicals), coconut husk, bagasse (sugar cane harvesting waste) and other plant biproducts.

2. The Good

Compostable PLA bioplastic catering supplies

Disposable products made of biodegradable organic-based materials that can be decomposed / composted effectively in industrial-scale / municipal waste processing facilities where the temperature, aeration and mixing are carefully controlled.  Here we include 'bioplastics' such as PLA (Polylactic Acid) used for cups, cutlery, waterproof coatings etc. PLAs are made from corn starches and sugarcane (ie plant-derived) and are functionally indistinguishable from conventional petrochemical-based plastics. Depending on the size and form of the item, PLA will take up to 6 months to compost in industrial composters. It will break down in the natural environment but may take a couple of years to do so - but that's better than 100s of years!

Recommended Product Materials: PLA, CPLA. RCPLA, HPLA - but check that the products are certified as biodegradable.

3. The OK 

Not perfect but when responsibly disposed of, Recyclable materials including some plastics & metal foils can be recovered and reused in the manufacturing process. Note however, original manufacture, subsequent recovery, cleaning and recycling is very energy intensive so not the ideal eco-friendly choice. Note also that  recycled materials are commodities subject to market prices and demand - which may dry up - such as the fall off in demand for baled plastic formally sent to the Far East.

4. The Bad

Reducing catering waste littering beaches

Although plastics are incredibly useful to us for so many everyday things, items designed for single-use have been a disaster environmentally. They have been favoured by producers, the catering industry and even consumers because they are light, robust will withstand heat, convenient - and relatively inexpensive to buy. BUT their brief usefulness is outweighed by long term environmentally detriment. 

The worst category comprises chemically complex, durable and heat-resistant plastics and other petrochemical-based materials that are uneconomic or too difficult to recover and recycle. With minimal resale value they usually go to landfill or incineration. In landfill most plastics, such as polystyrenes, will remain for 100s or 100s of years and though some plastics break down in the environment, they don't biodegrade like organic matter so can't be converted by living organisms into useful compounds for life. Instead, unless treated with anti-UV additives, they may photodegrade, a process by which the sun's rays pulverise the plastic polymers until they are broken into individual molecules - and these are often harmful to life.

Legislation is being planned to tax and restrict many products in this category so switch from these wherever possible and look for less harmful alternatives.


Glossary of 'Eco-related' Terms

Biodegradable Material

Capable of being digested / broken down into constituent parts by microbial action (soil bacteria, fungi & other organisms). Materials are from natural sources,  usually derived from plants. If a product is labelled as biodegradable - check the manufacture's specifications - it does not automatically mean compostable. 


Capable of being included with 'green' waste matter (e.g. garden waste) and will rot away to produce a compost residue that can be mixed with soil and used to grow plants. You may compost waste yourself in a heap or compost bin or send waste for industrial composting at a commercial / community facility. Note, however, that some products labelled as compostable are really only designed for industrial composters.


Items that are used just once then discarded as they are unsuitable for re-use (e.g. food wrappers. boxes, take-away cups etc.). Some items could be reused but it's generally uneconomic / unhygienic to do so - e.g. cups & cutlery.  Carelessly discarded items are a scourge in towns and the countryside.

Eco / Environmentally Friendly

Conducting yourself / your business in a way that has minimal long-term impact on or even enhances the environment - e.g. using less energy, recycling waste, using products made of materials that biodegrade and leave no trace or pollutants behind. Think about how your products will end up in a variety of scenarios.

Organic material

Here we mean carbon-based, mainly plant material derived from photosynthesis. Most natural organic material is easily biodegraded / composted. Inorganic materials which are mineral based, apart from some exceptions such as trace elements, have no biological purpose and so persist unused a very long time in the environment. Be careful not to confuse natural organic matter with 'organic chemistry' which is the study of all carbon-based materials - including petrochemicals.


Organic material, is the ultimate in recyclables as breakdown materials are reused in biological cycles. Most plastics and metal-based products can be dismantled and useful materials recovered. Some of these materials are sought after (e.g. aluminium, tin, PET) and although expensive to recover & purify, have a good economic return value. Other materials are recyclable but at high cost and in a fluctuating market, when prices are low their disposal or storage has to be subsidised. A product labelled as recyclable doesn't mean it will be recycled and where items comprise multiple materials - such as coated cardboard food boxes or hot drink cups - being difficult to sort and process, they are sent to straight to landfill / incinerator.


Materials that are treated as valueless after first use, too difficult or too expensive to be worth recovering for further use. Their destiny is landfill or incineration. Note the cost of disposal is charged for by the tonne. Incineration at least creates some useful energy BUT results in more CO2 and can lead to toxic gas release including dioxins.


A much mis-used word. Biodegradable / compostable / recyclable materials are sometimes designated as sustainable as they leave no waste. However, if they are sourced from a fragile or disappearing habitat ...their ongoing sourcing and production is unsustainable. Products, made from waste plant material or wood that comes from plantations where trees are managed and replenished are sustainable.

Low Carbon Footprint

Irrespective of your views on man-made Climate Change, low carbon consumption is a Good Thing. It means efficient (& economic) use of energy and materials. Many products now are rated for their carbon-footprint rating - and who in their right mind would choose an energy inefficient appliance over an efficient one.

FSC Certification

Also see sustainable - The Forest Stewardship Council is an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organisation established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the world's forests. It does this by setting standards on forest-based products, along with certifying and labelling them as eco-friendly. Don't just pick wood-based disposables over plastic - check for a FSC label (as above)

PLA (Bioplastic)

PLA plant-based plastic substitutes

Polylactic Acid is a 'bioplastic' made from plant / microbe material such as corn starch or fermented sugarcane. It comes in different forms and has the big advantage of being completely biodegradable with no obnoxious biproducts. There are biodegradable plastics made from petrochemicals, which are engineered to break down more quickly but it is reckoned that PLA uses 2/3 less energy in manufacture than petrochemical based plastics and during decomposition gives off less CO2 and methane as other biodegradable plastics -  so PLA can be regarded as having a lower carbon-footprint as well as being biodegradable. Requiring higher temperatures to break-down quickly, It will compost best in commercial biogesters. For more information on this subject look to the web - it is a complex and active area.


Summary Differences between Biodegradable & Non-Biodegradable Materials




Time Factor

Degradation process for Biodegradable waste is rapid (weeks to months)

Degradation process in Non-Biodegradable waste is slow – maybe 1000s of years

Consumed Biologically?

Biodegradable waste is decomposed and degraded by living microbes (bacteria & fungi)

Non-Biodegradable waste cannot be decomposed by microbes

Cumulative Waste?

Biodegradable waste is not accumulated but reused by other living organisms in short time

Non-Biodegradable waste will persist & accumulate as they have no biological use

Natural cycles?

Biodegradable waste become part of sustainable biogeochemical cycles with rapid turnover

Most Non-Biodegradable waste never enters biogeochemical cycles so long residency & may release toxic chemicals during slow chemical decay, abrasion & UV exposure.

Economic Reusable Products?

Composted Biodegradable waste products include compost,  generated heat energy & usable biogas

Useful materials from Non-Biodegradable waste sometimes recoverable and recycled / incinerated but process is expensive / uneconomic with toxic biproducts

Energy Consumption?

Generally occurs naturally with no extra energy input required

Reclamation & recycling energy expensive which often outweighs the value of recovered materials


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