‘Curry and Conversation’ about our reliance on single-use plastic

Bristol businessman and homeless charity organiser Naseem Talukdar of The Plastic Pollution Awareness and Actions Project (PPAAP) is working with takeaways in Bristol and beyond to try to find alternatives to single-use plastic.

Plastic bags, containers, drink bottles, delivery products, wrappings, sauce sachets, cutlery… the list goes on. Food retailers and caterers are some of the heaviest users of single-use plastic and our industry’s reliance has just continued to increase.

Plastic is cheap and hygienic and plays the ideal role to fulfil the needs of running a takeaway business. The ultimate convenience. My parents used to own Rupali restaurant in Kingswood Bristol in the 1980s and 1990s and I’ve always been involved in the catering industry. In 2016, when there was an increase of homelessness on the streets of Bristol, it shocked me to see hungry people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It was this that motivated me to start up the charity Feed The Homeless delivering home-cooked meals and hot drinks to rough sleepers in Bristol. But it is hard to avoid dependency on single-use plastic to deliver meals in this way.

However, seeing powerful images of the effect of plastic on marine life (such as those in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet) has made me realise we need to act now. I set up the charity Plastic Pollution Awareness and Actions Projects (PPAAP) in October 2018 to raise awareness of single plastic usage within our catering and hospitality sector and to empower businesses to take appropriate action.

The campaign started with a ‘Curry and Conversation’ workshop to raise awareness and share knowledge about replacement products that can be environmentally sustainable. Our first meeting was held at the Bristol Central Quaker Meeting House and we looked at cost-effective and convenient alternatives to plastic with partners Surfers Against Sewage and Bristol-based organisation City to Sea.

We know this is not going to be easy, given society’s need for convenience, but the hospitality and food sector contributes directly to more than 17% of the total plastic pollution that goes into the sea. Fish, seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals can become entangled in or ingest plastic debris, causing suffocation, starvation and drowning. Humans are not immune to this threat: while plastics are estimated to take up to hundreds of years to fully decompose, some of them break down much quicker into tiny particles, which in turn end up in the seafood we eat.

But what is the alternative? I’ve come across some interesting ideas. One example is the work of brothers Arran and Kirk Smith, a trained engineer and designer respectively. They’ve come up with the ‘Eco-Scoop’ – a biodegradable spoon which degrades in just four weeks – compared to the typical 500 years of some plastic utensils.

For us at PPAAP our desire to eradicate single-use plastic in the restaurant industry is focussed on five central aims:

• Raise general awareness of plastic pollution to all food lovers and retailers

• Empower food retail owners to embrace changes to eradicate single-use plastic

• Focus on Asian cuisine as this has often been neglected in awareness campaigns

• Organise youth activities such as beach cleans, awareness workshops and planting trees

• Create a support network to combine knowledge and activity with other organisations and charities.

We’ve had more than 40 restaurant owners and managers sign up to a pilot scheme to learn how to adapt to a plastic-free business. I met the owner of Rajastan Royal in Emersons Green, Ibrahim Romel, through my work with Feed the Homeless. Like me, he was inspired to tackle plastic pollution, particularly from the ‘pester power’ that came from his children who also watched sealife TV programmes and saw the impact. Ibrahim is currently taking part in a PPAPAP pilot scheme to reduce plastic use in his takeaway restaurant.

There’s an Indian mantra of ‘jugaad’ (do more with less) and Bristol’s Thali cafés are working to this mantra, successfully using tiffins, a reusable lunchbox system and recycling the majority of their waste, including food and plastics. But even with the tiffin system, there will always be people who want the convenience of a takeaway container and this is why we have to find alternatives to our dependency on single-use plastic.

So next time you order a takeaway please ask for a non-plastic option (even if they don’t have such option) or offer to supply your own reusable container. This will seed ideas and show a potential market for the business owners to invest as they see the demand. If there are enough requests, they will look into this option more seriously and pragmatically.

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