Questions raised over green credentials of biodegradable plastic straws

By Claire Churchard

- Last updated on GMT

Plastic fantastic: straws are the poster boy for reducing plastic waste
Plastic fantastic: straws are the poster boy for reducing plastic waste
Biodegradable straws were a hot topic at the Unpack the Future of Hospitality conference yesterday, hosted by UKHospitality, the British Institute of Innkeeping, partnering with The Morning Advertiser.

Many pub and bar operators have proactively moved away from plastic straws to biodegradable ‘plastic’ or polylactic acid (PLA), ​paper and other materials to reduce the amount of plastic waste they produce.

However, two speakers at the conference highlighted issues with composting certain types of biodegradable straw.

Commercial composting

Mike Hanson, head of sustainable business at hospitality service provider BaxterStorey, told delegates that plastic biodegradable straws need to be commercially composted to ensure they are disposed of properly.

“If you don’t have access to that, you are wasting your money,” he said.

Another potential problem he highlighted was that while commercial composting is available, “they don’t really want packaging”, which includes straws.

“To make it work, processors need to fill their containers with 80% food waste and 20% packaging waste,” he said. Any packaging waste that can’t go into it will generally go to ‘energy recovery’ also known as incineration.

Wrong side of legislation

Another issue highlighted by speaker Martin Kersh, executive director at the Foodservice Packaging Association, emphasised that many biodegradable straws being used are still plastic, even though they are derived from plant-based materials.

These products do biodegrade much faster than ‘normal plastic’, but operators that have been proactive in switching to these straws could still end up on the wrong side of government legislation if plastic straws are banned. A ban is a real possibility, with the government planning to consult on it later this year.

Both speakers urged hospitality operators to consider what their waste management service provider was doing with the material after it left their premises.

They also encouraged pub operators and the wider hospitality sector to take a broad view of their entire waste stream to ensure plastic packaging that helps preserve food is not stripped out indiscriminately, causing an increase in food waste. Kersh said: "Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Tricky to find the right solution

These issues highlight the difficulty of finding the right solution for your site, something acknowledged by fellow conference speaker Andrew Stones, managing director of the Be At One cocktail bar group.

He said the business had spent a lot of time researching and deciding on the right solution for them and confirmed that their biodegradable straws are sent to an AD processor for responsible composting.

He also said that the move to using these straws had been welcomed by their staff, who supported the company’s efforts to be environmentally responsible. An employee survey revealed a 78% positive response in relation to the switch to biodegradable straws.

Campaign to raise waste awareness

In January, the MA​, BII, UKHospitality and BBPA launched a campaign encouraging the pubs sector to reduce its single-use plastic waste, starting with the easy win of cutting the amount of single use plastic straws and stirrers used in drinks.

The response was phenomenal, with many operators going far beyond just reducing straw and stirrer waste. For more on what the sector is doing, look out for the spotlight news feature in the next issue of the MA​.   

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