Chef Skye Gyngell offers me a drink when I arrive at her London restaurant, Spring. “A glass of tap water,” I venture. “All our water is tap water,” replies Gyngell, firmly. It’s not surprising she has eschewed bottled water.
She is known already for her advocacy of local and seasonal; and her anti-waste set menu, which costs £20 for three courses and a homemade soft drink, has been a hit since it started last year. Now, inspired by the Netflix documentary Plastic Planet, Gyngell has made a new commitment: to rid her kitchen and restaurant of single-use plastic.
“Single-use plastic” is an awkward phrase for the bits and bobs of plastic that we use every day when we cook and eat, and then chuck away – the packaging, the wrappers, the straws and the cling film. While it has been a source of concern to environmentalists for decades, it has become a hot topic since the final episode of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, which aired last November and exposed the effect of the eight million tons of plastic waste going into our oceans every year.
Planet Organic has reported a 25 per cent increase in sales from the Be Unpackaged (beunpackaged.com) concessions in its shops, which allow you to refill your own containers with staples such as beans, dried fruit and cleaning products.
Most of the supermarkets are making commitments to reduce plastic packaging, and with a Dutch supermarket opening a plastic-free aisle (using biodegradable packaging) last week, we can expect to see similar initiatives over here.
Delivery company Milk and More, which provides milk in both glass and plastic bottles, has seen a rise in demand for glass bottles – but with doorstep delivery prices running at as much as double the cost of the supermarket, it’s a big commitment to make. A recent survey by parenting website Channel Mum suggests that 93 per cent of families are keen to reduce plastic use but only 17 per cent can afford to pay more.
Plastic does have its uses. Take carrier bags: paper ones make no sense in the British climate, as they collapse at the first sign of rain. Plastic ones are reusable, waterproof and lightweight, meaning that the environmental cost is lower than paper.
The issue, according to Spring manager and green guru Ed Proctor, who is studying for an MA in Global Governance and Ethics at University College London, is that while paper breaks down fairly quickly, “the plastic will still be here, in the same form, in 600 years”. And much of it never gets recycled: “We get a false sense of security by chucking things in our recycling bins and then forgetting about it.”
Under Proctor’s guidance, the restaurant has started using compostable corn starch bags, replacing the 500 plastic ones that were being used every month. They have invested in ceramic ice cream bowls to replace the old-fashioned cardboard lined with plastic, which, like takeaway coffee cups, are not recyclable.
Even the plastic sheeting that Fern Verrow farm, which supplies the bulk of the restaurant produce, uses to cover the boxes is now washed, hung to dry, and returned to the farm for reuse. One plastic solution still eludes them: bin bags. “We haven’t found a good alternative yet,” Gyngell admits.
Cling film has been largely abandoned, although that too has been a hard habit to ditch – a roll still lurks behind the bar. “In restaurants, everything gets covered in cling film – even the tablecloths going back to the laundry. We have stopped that,” explains Gyngell. In the kitchen it’s been ubiquitous. “Restaurants tend not to buy pan lids because they are expensive, so they wrap pans in cling film instead, as cling film can sustain quite high heat. We have bought a lot of lids.”
As well as lids, the chefs at Spring are using paper coated in beeswax (see box) to cover dishes, and are experimenting with a compostable film. Isn’t the prevalence of cling film to do with maintaining good hygiene? “We over-sterilise everything,” Gyngell insists. Plus, she points out, there are question marks about the health of using plastic to store food, in particular BPA and phthalate components.
Ditching plastic does take an effort on our part. Catherine Conway set up Be Unpackaged 10 years ago and has breathed new life into the old-fashioned “scoop shop” market, which has been burgeoning in the past year. She admits there is a “knock-on convenience factor. You need to plan to bring a container if you want to be waste free,” although the shop does offer bags if you have forgotten yours.
But, Gyngell says: “If it is a bit of extra trouble, so what? It’s like someone gave us a beautiful house and we just thoughtlessly trashed it.” The restaurant industry has a lot to answer for, she adds. “Now, I want to be part of the solution.”