One of the most frustrating aspects of each year’s judging for the Free From Food Awards is the amount of polystyrene packaging that comes our way. Mainly to keep frozen and chilled food frozen/chilled, but also often just as fillers.
If ever there was a material which was created to be broken up and reformed back into another version of itself, surely it must be polystyrene? But no. A short survey of recyling sites tells one that:
- Because polystyrene is a plastic that is formed from styrene (a liquid hydrocarbon), it is not able to be recycled.
- Some local authorities accept it in recycling collections although it is unlikely to actually be recycled.
- The new type of expanded polystyrene can and should be recycled but it often isn’t.
- Polystyrene is difficult to sort from other types of plastic waste and easily breaks into small beads which can clog up sorting machines and cause them to break down.
- The machinery required to recycle polystyrene is costly and difficult to build. The size of much of the waste polystyrene we amass also makes it complex to collect, even though it is very lightweight.
- Technically, if heated enough in the sun, for example, polystyrene will begin to break down. However, most polystyrene ends up piled up in landfill where it is not exposed to sunlight so that it can take up to 500 years for a single piece of it to decompose.
- Research suggests that when polystyrene is heated up, it can cause it to break down and leach harmful chemicals, so heating it up is not desirable.
Most years at the awards we manage to ensure it is re-used – we pack it with the excess food that goes to City Harvest for distribution to food banks or we advertise it on a local network and gradually find homes for it. But it can take weeks.
So you can imagine how pleased I was when this box turned up for this year’s judging with entries into the ready meals category from Chef Akila, makers of really delicious gluten free Indian frozen meals.
But, did it mean what it said or would it contain yet another polystyrene box filled with my other, equally unrecyclable bête noire: those horrible thick plastic pouches filled with unmeltable gel? So, joy unbounded when I unpacked it and found this…
A cardboard box, lined on the base and all four sides with cardboard corrugated fillets, with similarly corrugated lid. Inside the products were wrapped in a wool filled, 100% curbside recycleable brown paper bag and surrounded with thin (recyclable) plastic pouches filled with dry ice. Cosily (well, chilly-ly) packed inside were the frozen meals, as rock solid as when they had left Chef Akila’s kitchen.
I was so excited that after the judging was over, I called Chef Akila to ask them about their packaging and had a long chat with chef’s son, Senthil. He told me that going plastic free had been an ambition from when they launched, but an ambition that was hard to realise, especially for a small company with relatively little buying power.
Their first problem was finding a genuinely plastic free, biodegradable/compostable tray for the food as the vast majority of what is on offer are only 80-90% biodegradable with a thin plastic film to retain the liquid in the dishes. However, persistence paid off and they now use a sturdy pressed 100% fibre tray for the food which is impermeable, microwavable, ovenable, freezable and totally compostable. As yet they have not found a biodegradable plastic free film strong enough to contain the liquid in their meals but the search goes on. For now the film is at least recyclable.
The sleeves for their meals are, unsurprisingly, compostable and biodegradable and are printed with eco friendly inks.
Finding the outer packaging that would both protect their products and be compostable and biodegradable was a whole other mission. They did manage to source the boxes in the UK although the corrugated cardboard liners are imported from the US. And, in our ever more eco-conscious world, there is now a three to four month waiting list for these cardboard liners as everyone wants them.
The dry ice they buy every few days in large blocks which are cut down on their site and sealed into small plastic bags that are packed around the food in the box. The dry ice, Senthil says, actually works better than the gel packs which can not only get damaged in transit but do not keep the food as cold. Finally the boxes are sealed with paper tape.
However, this does not come cheap. Senthil reckons that their new earth friendly packaging costs them 35-40% more than if they stuck with conventional materials. The trays, for example, and the dry ice are almost double the price of plastic trays or gel packs. Although he believes that his customers would probably be prepared to share this cost thay have decided they they would rather absorb it themselves and use the packaging as what he calls a ‘user engagement tool’. This seems to have been a sound policy as they have received a great many compliments on the packs – as well as a great many compliments on their food!
If you would like to join the ranks of Chef Akila’s happy customers, check in to their site here. However, be aware that during the pandemic they have been super busy and, at one point had a two week waiting list! And let me assure you that you will not be disappointed. Not only can you, like me, drool over their packaging, but you can delight in their handcooked, traditional curries, biriyanis, masalas and dhals..