Lockdown life: Warnings over environmental impact of all those takeaways

Discard pizza boxes Pic © Kenneth Allen (cc-by-sa/2.0)

As many rush to support their local restaurants with takeaway orders, campaigners have warned of the impact on the environment of the excess packaging, such as pizza boxes and plastic containers.

The packaging material is often advertised to restaurants as being a ‘sustainable option’. But, food packaging is “often not recyclable due to the food waste left on it”, Lewisham’s department of Rubbish and Recycling told ELL. This means that the whole batch is “contaminated” and “unusable”, and therefore thrown out.

Carole Destre, Climate and Ecology Coordinator at the Horniman Museum and member of Climate Action Lewisham, told ELL: “While cardboard in general is recyclable, pizza boxes are a bit of a grey area. If they’re full of grease or food waste, don’t dispose of them in your recycle bin. It will contaminate the rest of the bag.”

She added: “A lot of takeaway boxes are made from polystyrene, which is not recyclable. Even cardboard packaging is usually not recyclable due to the food waste and stains. But I do think cardboard is the lesser of two evils compared to single use plastic and polystyrene.”

Climate Action Week
It is London Climate Action Week, an annual event where climate professionals come together to find solutions to climate change. Packaging materials are a strain on the natural resources needed to produce them – including trees and water. More so, if deemed not-recyclable it often ends up as litter on the streets, in the oceans or on massive waste mountains in other countries. By reducing your use of packaging, reusing it and disposing of it correctly, you can contribute to a healthier planet. London recycled only 33 percent of its household waste in 2018-2019, which is far below the national average of 43 percent, calculations from the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs suggests.

Croydon had the sixth highest recycle rate (47 percent) of all London boroughs – a 9 percent increase from the previous year, and was well above the average of the city. Lewisham (28 percent), Hackney (28 percent) and Tower Hamlets (23 percent) all scored below the city’s average. The best local authorities in England scored rates of at least 60 percent.

Plastic containers

Plastic is often advertised as a recyclable material, but research has pointed out that most plastic waste is being dumped in other countries.

“Plastic containers can be reused as food storage, but the issue is that you really only need a few of them. So once you have three or four, what do you do with the rest? That’s right, you end up throwing it out,” Destre said.

“The vast mountains of plastic waste generated by the food sector must be urgently addressed”, said Friends of the Earth plastic campaigner Camilla Zerr. “Companies need to do more to slash the amount of waste they create in the first place, including offering reusable food containers.”


Some restaurants have turned to compostable takeaway packaging as a more sustainable alternative, but this material comes with its own issues.

Composting can be done in your own garden – but not everyone has that luxury, especially in London – or can be tossed in a special food waste bin, collected by the local council. All ELL boroughs collect food waste bins. But a compostable container can look similar to food containers made from other materials and therefore makes the batch seem contaminated.

Destre explains: “The collection teams only have a few seconds to assess if the food waste bins are contaminated. If they see packaging in a food waste bin, they usually don’t have the time to check for the ‘compostable logo’ and will end up rejecting the entire batch of food waste.”

Plastic cup recycling bin with seperate compartments for lids, liquid, and cups
A coffee cup being recycled by its user. Pic: PA Media

Reusable solution

The only sustainable way for restaurants to offer takeaways would be by offering reusable containers, according to Destre. She said: “Some takeaway services are looking at ways to implement such a solution and are assessing whether customers are willing to pay a deposit for returnable packaging. A great solution would be for food containers to be collected, cleaned and dropped off back at the businesses again – while still making a profit.”

Dabbadrop is a takeaway business offering this solution already. They offer set menus in reusable takeaway boxes. Since November 2018 the company has saved over 50,000 plastic containers by opting for reusable packaging that customers swap out every time they deliver.

Who pays?

While the companies that produce and sell the packaging make a profit, they are not responsible for the disposal of it.  

“Once the order leaves the restaurant, the responsibility for the waste falls onto local councils”, said Destre. “They are the ones sweeping litter off the streets, collecting and disposing of these packaging materials and paying in its associated cost in both time and money.”

“We need to start including environmental costs in the production of these products. This should be calculated into the price paid by the consumer, to increase individual responsibility. If we start including environmental costs in production costs, non-sustainable packaging would reflect their true ‘damaging’ cost and restaurants and other businesses would probably be more invested in finding a sustainable solution,” Destre concluded.

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