(Readtime: +- 8 minutes)
- Since the plastic soup discussion has taken off, the food service industry has been looking hard for sustainable solutions, but you notice that there are still many questions floating around.
- In the recycling process it’s not simple to separate this plastic coating from paper. Is a paper cup actually more sustainable than a plastic cup?
- It’s not yet clear whether PLA can be sold using the term ‘sustainable’
- In this article: "What is the industry moving towards and what can we all expect?"
- Want to stay updated about sustainability? Follow us on Linkedin
- Looking for the most eco-friendly straws? Find our straw straws here
WALK THE TALK #1 - In conversation with HANOS about sustainable innovation in food service
We visited William van den Hout, buyer non-food at HANOS. HANOS is one of the biggest chains in the Netherlands where food service industry/hospitality professionals do their groceries. Every small change they implement can have a big impact. Because William has lots of influence through his work and sees what’s happening in the market from up close, we chatted to him about sustainability in the food service industry.
(William van den Hout, Category Manager Non-Food bij HANOS. Photo credits: Monika Vaskorova)
William, as a buyer at HANOS you have broad insights into what happens in the market. What are the important trends you observe?
There are definitely many developments in my field of disposables and packaging! Since the plastic soup discussion has taken off, the food service industry has been looking hard for sustainable solutions, but you notice that there are still many questions floating around. For example, I often get asked about ‘biodegradable’ alternatives. But is that necessary? I try to look at the theme of sustainability as a whole. Is the alternative made from natural materials, where are the products produced and in what conditions?
From the supply side, sustainability has already been a theme for years, but we have only recently noticed that it’s rapidly becoming a theme for our clients as well. More and more sustainable alternatives for plastic are appearing on our shelves, but for now, plastic still has a place on the shelves. As a wholesale business we anticipate the demand from our clients, and not every client is ready to make the step to sustainability yet. But I think that as a wholesale business you have a pioneering role, so we’re looking very actively at many different sustainable alternatives to make our clients’ lives easier.
Why is it that some food service entrepreneurs/business owners still choose to use plastic?
A certain segment focuses less on sustainability, and will make use of plastic as long as possible, until a ban is introduced. After that, they will change to an alternative. You have to deal with breaking through what people are used to. That takes time. A cafetaria that sells milkshakes will, for example, still provide plastic straws because they are not satisfied with paper straws as alternative. But the ban will come, so the alternative will follow. In a few years, we won’t know any different. Say paper straws do become THE alternative. Soon, we’ll all be used to that, and we’ll not be able to remember that we ever used plastic straws. Take the smoking ban in bars. That’s a development from 15 years ago. There was a lot of fuss about it back then, but now we don’t know any different.
At Straw by Straw we see that too, but also an ever-growing group that is actively searching for sustainable solutions.
There’s always going to be a segment that sticks with plastic, but we’re now noticing that many food-service companies are also taking on a pioneering role. Done! No discussion whatsoever! These clients also expect us to provide a broad offer of sustainable solutions. That’s what we are working hard on at the moment. An unforeseen circumstance is that we need almost 2 times as much shelving space for packaging and disposables, because we have to be able to serve all our clients! We are already working on winding down the products which will be banned in 2021. The moment the ban comes in, we will only sell sustainable solutions.
“We are already working on winding down the products which will be banned in 2021. The moment the ban comes in, we will only sell sustainable solutions.”
In the packaging industry there are various innovations taking place. For example, there’s a group that wants to encourage people to bring meal boxes, or companies that make edible variants… and also people who are begging for zero packaging! Don’t you think that at a certain point we need to completely get rid of disposables?
No, on the contrary. Especially in the category of disposables, you see that the demand is only increasing. That has to do with other trends in the market, such as the delivery of meals and the increasing popularity of festivals (where they have food trucks). But a cleaner environment also starts with you as an individual. Preventing litter ultimately starts with the end user. Whether you have a plastic or cardboard container, you throw it in the trash and not on the street. That’s where it starts. In particular, I see shifts from plastic to alternatives like paper, bamboo, and sugar cane.
Cardboard and paper coffee cups sometimes get criticised because there’s a coating that often is made from plastic or PLA. What’s your opinion on this and what developments do you see?
Plastic cups are being replaced more and more often by paper cups, indeed with coating. In the recycling process it’s not simple to separate this plastic coating from paper. So… is a paper cup actually more sustainable than a plastic cup? In that area, I’m seeing more and more innovation around paper cups, for example with water-based or PLA coatings.
PLA? That’s interesting, because that’s also a material which is often criticised…
It’s not yet clear whether PLA can be sold using the term ‘sustainable’. While PLA is compostable, in waste processing PLA still falls under the term ‘plastic’. At HANOS, we are careful with PLA precisely for that reason. At this moment, we don’t actively include it as a sustainable alternative, because we aren’t sure yet what legislation will say about it in 2021.
It seems like you are consciously working on sustainable alternatives. Would you go so far as to say that HANOS has taken on a leading role?
Definitely! We have to deal with many packaging materials, and always look at ways to deal with these as sustainably as possible. Products we buy and sell in the shop are almost always delivered in plastic. Many products traditionally sold at wholesalers are shrink-wrapped. We look critically at where we can ‘avoid or reduce’ plastic packaging materials. Besides, there are many different initiatives at the moment, like replacing plastic bags in the fruit & vegetables departments with biodegradable alternatives. The advantage for users is that the new bag can go in the food and garden waste. We’ve also started a project with a supplier to produce bin bags that are made from 100% recycled materials. That way, we ensure that no new raw materials are used for the production. That’s a good example of ‘reducing’. A next step could be to have bin bags produced from all the plastic waste material that is released within our own organisation!
You are a big company, and therefore have quite a lot of influence to bring about a positive impact. Do you talk to your own suppliers if they don’t work in a sustainable way?
We look critically at supplier that give us products in plastic. I think that in 10 years, we will hardly see any plastic in the shelves. More and more companies are looking for alternatives for sustainable packaging. The big players are already doing this proactively, but smaller suppliers also need to look at this. We don’t set hard demands yet, but I think that this will be different in a few years. In the starting phase, when sustainable packaging just entered the market we struggled with this. For example, we sell sugar cane products but they then are delivered in plastic packaging. That’s a big challenge because that packaging also serves as protection. And as a cash and carry you also have to think about appearance. The customer does want to see what they’re buying.
Making the entire industry sustainable is quite complex. I’ve noticed that myself through building up Straw by Straw. On the one hand, you want to offer a sustainable product as a start-up, but compared to existing products they’re often considerably more expensive. While there are definitely many entrepreneurs looking for a solution, not everything is practical or exists yet. It’s a continuous chicken and egg story…
In your opinion, what can the industry do to improve or change so we can all achieve this together?
I think that the government also has a role to play in this. Not just laying down rules and bans, but they should also do something to help the local industry become more sustainable. I notice that many sustainable alternatives are produced outside Europe. Probably due to cost considerations. Through the new measures, some companies will really be in trouble. I know local producers of plastic disposables that produce very cleanly and have all their certificates. They have invested a lot in that but now they have their backs against the wall.
At the moment sustainable alternatives are more expensive, but I notice now that the gap is getting smaller through increasing demand. And how bad is it that a sustainable alternative products is more expensive? I think it’s worse if you lose a customer because you don’t do it! Because your customers don’t want to be associated with plastic anymore. Also, entrepreneurs in the food services industry think about this properly. And how important are the costs of packaging materials in that?
"And how bad is it that a sustainable alternative products is more expensive? I think it’s worse if you lose a customer because you don’t do it!"
Plenty of opportunities and developments then! What is your advice for young sustainable startups that want to become successful as a food services supplier, or want to sell their products at HANOS?
That’s a very good one. Cooperation is really important. There are certain parties in the market that just serve a really big group of clients. So: try to find connections within those kinds of parties. I always say to startups: first go to market and talk to users. Try to make them enthusiastic, and to bring about a pull-effect that way. When customers ask for it we’ll obviously adopt it ourselves. You have experienced that yourself with straw straws! In the end, the demand from customers decides what’s on our shelves. Make sure you have a good and distinctive product, and obviously a good story. I was recently approached by a startup that completely focused on products made from PLA. My advice was: first look at the new laws and legislation before you invest all your money in that.
Sp do you only buy in products if customers ask for it?
Sometimes we also buy in something proactively if there’s no demand for it yet. That’s the difference between push and pull. Sometimes you want to push something to launch a new product onto the market first. And then we take over your role to tell the story. But that’s not always possible. In that case we advise you to tell your story yourself first. And if you do that in a good way it will come back to us through the pull effect eventually.
Finally, a cliche question that I’m still going to ask: what’s your golden tip for sustainable steps in the food services industry?
Don’t only look at biodegradability, but at the entire picture. What impression do you want to give, and what’s your story? Plastic has a bad reputation, but can also be a good solution, if you have put in place a smart recycling system. But the most important thing to remember: a good environment starts with you!
Straw by Straw is now also for sale at HANOS. We had already been in talks to sell our straw straws through them for a while because we got that question from you, because ‘that makes our weekly groceries trip very simple’’!
Looking for the most eco-friendly straws? Find our straw straws here