With delivery companies announcing major plastic packaging reduction initiatives, the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Andrew Stephen examines the so-called Attenborough effect – and what more the industry can do to address the pressing issue

Globally, 21.5 million people ordered 172 million takeaways using Just Eat in 2017. That’s a lot of takeaway. While it might be cheaper to eat at home than to go out, there is a price attached – an environmental one, much of it attached to the disposable packaging. With each of those orders there are the containers used to carry the food, the napkins, the cutlery, straws and sauce sachets all habitually bundled into the delivery bag. Much of it probably never even makes it out of the bag before it (the bag, almost certainly plastic too) is dumped in the bin. What a waste!

Whether you want to call it the ‘Attenborough effect’ or the ‘turtle turnaround’, we are undoubtedly witnessing a widespread and serious response from the foodservice industry to the scourge of single-use plastic.

Over the last two years we’ve seen coffee giants like Costa respond positively to the frankly woeful recycling rates of the 2.5 billion coffee cups bought every year in UK cafés. And, since the middle of last year, pub giants and minnows from Wetherspoon to Oakman Inns, bars and restaurants have made it clear that plastic straws suck, by saying no to routinely sticking one in every drink.

We congratulate all those businesses that have realised that plastic is not so fantastic and are moving to use less. Not least, Just Eat who earlier this month announced a range of positive measures designed to encourage their network of 28,000 restaurants to meet that objective.

The takeaway platform sold one million plastic packaging products to its UK restaurant network in 2017 through its partner shop. All single-use plastic items have now been removed from the shop. That should in time, as more sustainable alternatives become available, have a significant impact back of house. But what about changing the behaviour of a population who appear to want to use their appetites more wisely?

By trialling an opt out on plastic cutlery, straws and sauce sachets, Just Eat is responding positively to consumer research which shows that three quarters of takeaway eaters don’t need these items.

We’ll be supporting Just Eat and its restaurant partners over the next year, providing in-depth support to a test group of businesses, understanding their individual plastic challenges, helping them find alternatives and mapping out a journey towards operating plastic-free. We’ll then share the successes, and indeed ongoing challenges, with the whole Just Eat network.

Some of the challenges will not be overcome overnight. Cloth and bees wax aren’t yet a viable alternative to that kitchen staple clingfilm. And, is there yet a practical substitute to a plastic container for transporting a laksa up a hill on the back of a moped? We don’t have all the answers yet, but as more major businesses commit to make positive change, so sustainable, affordable solutions will follow. There may not be a one-size fits all model. So, the tiffin tin, used extensively by Bath-based Indian restaurant group Thali Café, is a neat fit for them, but wouldn’t necessarily work for a chippy.

It’s probably tantamount to treason to start talking about Attenborough’s legacy, but if the effect of Blue Planet is limited to a drastic reduction in use of plastic, we’ll have failed the great man. We must use this opportunity to go further. Two surveys we’ve conducted this year reveal scarily low levels of consumer satisfaction with the sustainability of food on restaurant menus. Almost nine out of ten of those questioned by Harden’s (86%) said they thought restaurants should focus on creating a menu that helps them make sustainable choices. Just 20% of those asked by Harden’s said they were satisfied with how ethical the food is on the menus of places they’ve eaten in recently, while even fewer, only 17% are satisfied with its impact on the environment.

Yes, plastic is a very serious issue, but when you consider that agriculture is responsible for 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions (second only to the energy sector), we’ll save the serious round of applause for when chefs and the whole foodservice sector worldwide start demonstrating how food can help us live better on planet earth.