Plastic-free takeaways?

2014: July

Grabbing a takeaway in Oxford might become a little kinder on the environment, thanks to a proposal by the city’s licensing committee. Oxford City Council is proposing a ban on polystyrene containers for takeaway food and a move towards biodegradeable packaging. 

Takeaway containers are a good example of how single-use plastic has come to seem normal: they’re a handy substitute plate for a single meal, with the expectation that they will be thrown away immediately afterwards. But where exactly is “away”? Well, there’s a lot of Styrofoam in our oceans. Research reported in the National Geographic involved taking water samples from oceans all over the world. The researchers found that all of the samples contained derivatives of polystyrene (used in disposable cutlery) and Styrofoam (used in many takeaway containers). 

Once Styrofoam breaks down, the tiny polystyrene components start to sink, because they're heavier than water. So it's likely that this styrene pollutant is prevalent throughout the water column and not just at the surface.

This invisible threat to wildlife is already causing huge concern among marine scientists. So why on earth are we still eating takeaways out of Styrofoam containers with a plastic fork? (Think about it: when you’re eating fish from a Styrofoam container, there may well be traces of Styrofoam inside the fish too.)

Street traders are understandably worried about cost; it’s true that Styrofoam is cheaper than the biodegradable alternatives. (It’s also hard to believe: why should a petrochemical-derived product that inflicts such a cost on our oceans be cheaper than a cardboard one?)  But many takeaway outlets have managed to use less damaging packaging without harming the bottom line; just think of the traditional newspaper-wrapped fish & chips. (If you want a more recent example, fish & chip chain Harry Ramsden’s switched to biodegradable packaging two years ago.) And perhaps if non-harmful packaging became the norm, manufacturers would find ways to produce it more cheaply.

The Oxford proposal is still just that – a proposal. The council consultation on it won’t end for a few more weeks. But if it succeeds, there won’t be quite as much reason to feel guilty about that late-night kebab. Could Witney try it next?