Seáneen Sullivan and her business partners opened L. Mulligan Grocer in Stoneybatter roughly a decade back.

Over the years, she’s always tried to put sustainability at the heart of the gastropub’s operations, she said over the phone one Monday afternoon in mid-May.

Like other restaurants and cafes across the city, though, L. Mulligan Grocer had to pivot with the arrival of Covid-19 – and that’s thrown up some big challenges, not least, when it comes to the question of takeaway packaging.

“It’s tricky,” said Sullivan, the executive chef and “reformed lawyer”.

“People keep saying, ‘The new normal’,” she says. “But it’s like opening again from scratch. It’s about reimagining what it is to be a socially responsible business in this new era.”

The Return of Plastics?

“We’re talking about a massive, massive increase on a global scale of the production and the use of single-use plastic,” says Janet Horner, a Green Party councillor.

Some chains rolled back on reusable packaging early. On 9 March, Insomnia said it was, for the time being, “pausing the use of reusable cups” in its coffee shops.

Other big players, such as Starbucks did the same. As did smaller city chains, such as 3FE Coffee.

“We’re back to single-use coffee cups, we’re back to plastic bags,” says Horner. “That’s a real step backwards by necessity at the moment but it is a concern.”

Ruth Hegarty said she was dismayed to see so many photos of take-home meals on social media that had packaging made from single-use plastics.

But it’s a complex issue, says Hegarty, who is the agency director at the food consultancy Egg & Chicken and head of community at Chef Network.

It’s hard to criticise it, she says. “Because obviously people just want to keep their doors open and their business going.”

People are having to go back to the drawing boards and come up with new business models, she says. “I just really hope that businesses consider sustainability as part of that picture.”

Making Choices

L. Mulligan Grocer hadn’t had a take-away service.

But three days after the restaurant closed up in mid-March, Sullivan was already drawing up her first take-away menu, she says.

For her, plastic containers are a “red line”, she says. Instead, they use parchment paper.

“But that won’t work for hot food delivery and that is an issue,” says Sullivan.

For a while, L. Mulligan Grocer delivered, too. But now they’ve moved to a click-and-collect model, says Sullivan.

Online, they offer drinks options such as pale-ale growlers. Or dishes, such as heat-at-home black pudding bon bons, and charcuterie boards with chorizo, pork pie, soda bread, and apple butter.

Across the city in Sandymount, BuJo burger joint offers a click-and-collect service with at-home meal kits of 12 beef patties, 8 brioche buns, housemade sauce, cheese, and whole dill pickles.

Most of the packaging in the meal kit box is compostable, says Gráinne O’Keefe, culinary director of BuJo.

That includes: the compostable box, the tray liner, and the burger wraps. Some of the packaging does include recyclable, but non-compostable packaging.

“That was unavoidable because we want to handle the ingredients as little as possible,” O’Keefe says. The patties are made and packaged off-site, and she puts those straight in the meal box.

Some restaurants may be turning to single-use plastics because of the heavy financial pressures that they’re under, says O’Keefe.

“Because the price of compostable packaging is significantly more than regular packaging they might not be able to completely switch their packaging over,” she says.

Sebastian Stenshøj, who helps run the Carrot’s Tail, vegan café and zero-waste shop, in Rathmines, says that the premium for eco-friendly packaging varies across products.

“It depends on whether you’re going compostable versus biodegradable. The quality obviously, that you’re looking into,” he says. Loads of factors, in other words.

But opting for those over other less eco-friendly options “is probably about twice the price”, he says.

As the Carrot’s Tail rolled out take-away options, they’ve stuck with compostable packaging, he says.

“It’s already killing us a little bit that we’re having to use this much packaging, even though it is compostable,” he says.

For that to break down properly, it still needs to go into an industrial composter or the right environment, he says.

There are other sustainability challenges at play too. Including for those who have opted for deliveries over click-and-collect.

The World Health Organisation has said that, “it is highly unlikely that people can contract Covid-19 from food or food packaging”.

But businesses have been understandably cautious. To protect themselves and others, some delivery drivers have turned to disposable rubber gloves and disposable face masks.

Deliveroo has given riders some protective equipment during the pandemic, said a Deliveroo spokesperson, by email. (They didn’t address queries about sustainability.)

“Riders can be reimbursed up to €20 for the purchase of [personal protective equipment],” they said.

If places reopen, there’s other stuff to consider too, says Stenshøj. “We’re all going to have to have more hand-sanitising products. We’re going to have to wipe down tables.”

“There’s a lot more cleaning going on, and we all have to invest in signage. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s happening,” he says.

Finding a Way Forward

At the moment, sustainability is mostly an afterthought for restaurants and cafes which are just trying to stay alive, says Adrian Cummins, head of the Restaurant Association of Ireland.

Takings from takeaway services aren’t a substitute for getting people through the doors, says Cummins. “It’s just treading water, keeping the lights on effectively.”

How many will continue takeaway services if there is a gradual reopening of the city is unclear.

Says Stenshøj of the Carrot’s Tail: “There’s just so much uncertainty that it’s nearly impossible to plan into the future.”

Rather than specific measures, it should probably be left to consumer pressure to encourage sustainable practices at the moment, he says.

Both O’Keefe and Hegarty say that they hope increased demand for sustainable packaging will drive down costs and make it more viable for businesses.

Says Hegarty: “Until the demand is strong enough that suppliers are buying them in big enough quantities, they’re going to be a bit more expensive.”

“Sometimes it’s actually the simple things that are most effective,” she says.

That could include incentivising customers to bring their own containers again, or urging restaurants to think more about whether customers need disposable forks or napkins, says Hegarty.

Horner, the Green Party councillor, says that when it comes to single-use PPE for delivery drivers, there need to be solutions that take into account all considerations.

Solutions that respect people, their work rights, their health, she says. “But also not detrimental to the environment.”

Nicky Daly is a freelance journalist living in Dublin. She is deeply interested in areas of cultural and social responsibility.

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