Plastic cutlery: needlessly adding to the throwaway plastic scourge

Wendy Knowler Consumer journalist
Discarded plastic cutlery is unlikely to be collected by waste pickers for recycling because, being so light, it has little value. Stock photo.
Discarded plastic cutlery is unlikely to be collected by waste pickers for recycling because, being so light, it has little value. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Mykhailo Polenok

Consumer pressure, driven by environmental concerns, forced the hospitality industry to rethink the plastic straw - but another form of single-use plastic is still being served up in massive numbers daily.

Cutlery: plastic knives, forks and spoons, much of it discarded without being used. Never mind single-use plastic; the cutlery is, in many cases, zero-use plastic. Produced, delivered and then dumped, unused.

Cape Town-based restaurant owner Ciro De Siena highlighted the issue on Twitter last week.

“Uber Eats has been smart about this issue and ask you if you want utensils [when you place an order]. But almost every restaurant we order from sends plastic cutlery regardless.

“This may sound trivial, but there are over 15,000 restaurants in SA. If each sends out just 20 meals a day, that’s 300,000 sets of single-use plastic, which may well just end up in the bin.

“I think restaurants have to default to assuming you’re ordering to your home where you can likely find yourself a fork.”

His own restaurant never includes cutlery with its home delivery meals, De Siena says. “And we’ve never had a single complaint about that. No-one’s asked for it.”

The stricter curfew imposed last week, coupled with a ban on alcohol sales, has no doubt boosted takeaway and home delivery orders, intensifying the plastic waste issue.

Asked to comment, Uber Eats confirmed that its app had an option to exclude utensils. “This note is sent directly to the restaurant partner,” a spokesperson told TimesLIVE.

“Unfortunately we can’t comment as to why they continue to add utensils in their orders, [but] in the New Year we will undertake to remind restaurant partners of all our features, including the opt-out for utensils, and remind them to look out for these notes.”

Delivery app Mr D, part of the Takealot group, does not give its customers the option of electing not to receive plastic cutlery with their meals.

Asked if that was something the group would consider in a bid to stem the amount of single-use or zero-use plastic being sent out, Mr D brand manager Iris Qacha responded: “Unfortunately, we will not be able to comment at this time.”

Famous Brands CEO Darren Hele said the quick-service restaurant group was committed to removing single-use plastic from all its restaurants by 2025.

It takes the concerted effort of everyone within the value chain to play their part to break the habit of waste.
Darren Hele, Famous Brands CEO 

Polystyrene takeaway packaging and plastic straws were entirely removed from Wimpy, Mugg and Bean, Steers, Debonairs, Fishaways, Milky Lane and Fego Caffé restaurants by the end of February 2020.

And recycling logos had been added to all plastic cutlery “to drive social awareness that they should be responsibly disposed of and recycled”, said Hele.

All restaurants in the group had been briefed not to supply cutlery unless requested, he said.

“While we continue to address, via training and signage, isolated incidents of restaurants providing plastic cutlery with takeaway orders, we realise that it takes the concerted effort of everyone within the value chain to play their part to break the habit of waste,” Hele said.

A product may be technically recyclable, but in many cases it is not actually being recycled in SA, for a variety of reasons.

Chandru Wadhwani, joint MD at Extrupet, Africa's leading PET recycler, said consumers most likely tossed plastic cutlery in the bin with other packaging and food residue, and it was very unlikely to be collected by waste pickers for recycling because, being so light, the utensils carry little value and are thus not worth the effort.

But recently the government gazetted strict new rules under the Waste Act to increase recycling and reduce the amount of waste that enters landfill sites. This includes new targets for recycled content in everything from plastic packaging to glass bottles.

And in what is referred to as “extended producer responsibility”, producers and importers must also make sure that used products are returned and recycled again.

Plastic cutlery is specifically mentioned in the long list of consumer items affected by the new legislation.

“The producers and importers of the packaging will have to form or join an organisation to have the packaging collected for recycling,” Wadhwani said.

“In reality it means they will have to come up with alternatives that do not harm the environment - and ultimately that’s the change we all want.”

GET IN TOUCH: Wendy Knowler specialises in consumer journalism. You can reach her via e-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za or on Twitter: @wendyknowler


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