Are plastics or food more important for the fast food industry? The discovery of new plastics, with ever-increasing potential, has certainly contributed to its development and character. However, as plastics are traditionally made from fossil fuels that have been billions of years in the making and are not usually biodegradable, such use is flawed: after a short useful life they remain forever as trash in landfill. This realisation has led to the search for eco-friendly plastics, generically termed bioplastics.
Although bio-plastics look indistiguishable from traditional plastics they are derived from annually renewable plants (often the non-food crop parts of them) including corn, potatoes, sugar cane and cassava, and can be commercially, and sometimes home, composted. Any carbon emitted during the disintegration process only releases into the air that which was taken from it by the plant in the process of photosynthesis. Their lifecycle is thus carbon-neutral and manufacturers are also working to reduce the energy consumed in their production.
The chocolate trays (1 - 2) are made from corn starch processed by Plantic. This material has many advantages including being water-soluble and thus it has no difficult 'end of life' ramifications but its viable uses are also limited.
The Innocent 'eco bottle' (3), currently being trialled on the new breakfast thickie with a view to rolling it out to all their drinks, is made of polyactic acid also derived from corn starch. It does not dissolve in water however it is air permeable. This means that its contents have a shorter shelf-life than the rest of the Innocent drinks in recyclable PET bottles. And, although it is home compostable its lid is not, so care has to be taken to dispose of the bottle and lid separately.
The transparent plates (4 - 5), tumblers (6), and the cutlery (7) are also made from polyactic acid in a form branded by Natureworks, the latter coloured. This material competes with petroleum-based plastics in cost, strength and clarity. See how it sparkles. However, it can only be composted under commercial conditions.
Some bioplastic products capitalise on their 'econess' in their appearance. The plates, bowl and beaker (8) are made from 80% cassava starch and plant fibre. They have been assembled with the cutlery made from potato starch (which looks more like regular plastic) into a picnic set by the firm RE and includes 100% recycled unbleached paper napkins tied up with raffia and is sold in a cardboard box with a vintage postcard.
Another responsible way of using plastics in products destined to be trashed is to recycle them. This was pioneered to wrap 'food-to-go' by Marks & Spencer in June 2005. They were influenced in their adoption of this wrap by research that found 79% of consumers would feel 'more positive' about a brand or manufacturer that uses recycled plastic. Their lead has been followed by other retailers, as demonstrated by the sandwich packs (9).