The COVID-19 crisis has brought suffering to people around the world. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also resulted in numerous impacts on the environment.
Food and drinks are packed in plastics
Since the beginning of the global pandemic, people have been using food delivery with single use packaging much more than before.
According to owners of catering services, the number of disposable food packages used for delivery have increased by 700-800% during the corona crisis. More plastic packaging is also being used by cafés, taverns and pubs. One such company is a small restaurant with a craft brewery, Lanius in Trenčín, which started to ‘package’ beer. „We started to fill plastic bottles with beer and deliver them. We also sell beer through the window in disposable plastic cups,“ explained manager Jozef Revák.
What are food packages made of?
Most frequently food is put in packaging made from polystyrene. Katarína Bašná, from the Environmental Department of Nová Dubnica, told us „We can only recycle washed polystyrene packages, not those which are dirty or oily. These unfortunately end up in the landfill.“
Another possibility would be using packaging made from bio-degradable materials, such as bamboo. However, bamboo grows in China and its transport would create a bigger carbon footprint than plastics do. The same problem exists with sugar cane. The best material for manufacturing eco-packaging in our area is potato starch, corn starch, and straw.
Respect for nature costs more
Packages from synthetic materials are cheaper, and hence purchased more often.
Three managers of restaurants in Trenčín told us more about the costs of eco-packaging. Owner of small local pancake place says: „Eco-packaging from sugar cane costs 24 cents, while polystyrene packaging costs only 12 cents.“ The higher price is caused by several factors, such as more complicated and longer processing and delivery costs.
A possible solution would be for the customers to choose which type of package they want, and then pay for it. But most restaurants don´t charge for packaging; they give it to customers for free. Only one of the three restaurants interviewed charges for them.
There are, however, food providers that care more about the environment, such as Roots Vegan Food in Trenčín: „We assume that eco-packages are more expensive. However, as we want to use ecological alternatives, plastic packaging is of the question.“
Problems with eco-packages
Processing of eco-packaging in Slovakia is not easy, says Martin Holeš, who organizes the HoromilFest festival in Považská Bystrica. Food and drink at the festival were sold in bio-degradable packages, and the waste produced was sorted carefully. „We brought the sorted bio-plastic waste to the recycling center, but they refused us. The reason was, that they don‘t have a buyer or processor for this type of waste.“ As a result, the organizers have completely given up on bio-degradable packaging for the festival.
„We had no experience of someone bringing in this type of waste. We would need to check whether the recycling facility in Nemšová could process it.“ Katarína Bašná confirms the complexity of the problem. She recommends that people try to compost this material in their home composters.
Customer packaging/Returnable packaging
Other solutions could be customers bringing their own packages, or returnable food containers. However, public health officers consider customer packages as risky, and not only during the corona crisis, when is this option is forbidden.
With returnable packaging restaurants would own several dozen returnable packages and customers could borrow them for a small fee. This fee would be returned when the customer brings the package back. A similar solution is already in effect at summer festivals with beer glasses. Lanius restaurant and brewery considered this idea. „We sell large amounts of beer, so this system would result in higher expenses, such as the purchase of a rinsing machine and paying employees responsible for cleaning,” said manager Jozef Revák.
The initial investment would therefore be high, but if the state or city would support such ideas, they could be feasible. Towns and municipalities could reward responsible restaurant managers. If they forgive some fees or taxes, it could motivate other businesses to use ecological packaging as well.
We need a law
The problem of excessive use of non-ecological food packaging must be addressed by politicians, the state, or the European Union. The EU recently passed a law banning plastic packages for food from 2021 onwards. The question is whether this rule will actually come into effect due to the corona crisis. Slovakia approved a law on deposits for plastic bottles and cans that was originally scheduled to start in 2022. However, the new government postponed the date by one year. Funds the state and entrepreneurs planned to invest will be now be used to improve business conditions during the corona crisis.
How can we make a difference?
What can the ordinary person do? We can warn the authorities about the increasing problem of food packaging as a result of the global pandemic followed by quarantines. At the same time is important to support new scientific discoveries for eco packaging. And finally, we can motivate people to learn more about different packages and their use. Until people know how difficult it is to process dirty packaging, they will continue to order their favourite packaged foods. It is important that consumers do not become accustomed to using more disposable food packages after the global pandemic.
Authors: Radka Lamačková a Miroslava Mrišová, 13 years
School: Private primary school Nová Dubnica