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Takeout in a sal leaf: restaurant packaging trends for 2021

Top restaurant packaging trends for 2021 include natural solutions from our past as well as new age materials like bioplastics

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, 7, asked me why it was so hard for everyone to reuse and recycle. A concept he was well aware of thanks to schools that now teach children conscious ways to reduce waste. The question from someone his age did amaze me, but honestly, I did not have a clear answer. This is a big question we need to ask everyone. In the initial days of the lockdown, I was shocked to see the amount of groceries I was consuming and the volume of waste being generated. I did follow a cycle of reusing kitchen waste in different recipes, but the real waste was the packaging, as most plastics couldn’t be reused.

Being in the restaurant business, the delivery and takeaway model has been crucial to us surviving the pandemic. A large chunk of this business has been innovation and adaptability, with brands introducing menus that are compatible to a delivery model. As packaging has improved, unconventional and green solutions have found a niche in this vertical. But there is a problem. Last year around August, when restaurants opened up, we were overwhelmed to see the number of new eco-friendly packaging vendors. Few had the right certifications. This greenwashing is scary because you don’t know what you are buying.

For me, choosing the right containers and standardising their shape across restaurants has been a massive task. Some of our popular dishes at Jamun like raan and chaat had to reach our guests without the contents being squeezed in one box. I could not find bigger containers for a party or a large group so I opted for stainless steel and aluminium (food grade) thaalis for the time being.

While I am still looking for bigger dishes, most restaurants use a hot sealing machine with bioplastic to seal plastic containers with gravies. We are thinking of using stainless steel tiffins as an exchange programme for delivering food with minimum deposits. Recycled glass jars for curries and sauces are also being explored.

Taking stock

There are some successful brands in the country that are over a decade old. Rhea Mazundar Singal’s Ecoware crafts biodegradable cups, plates and bowls from crop waste. Singal sold about 99 lakh pieces last year, a milestone for the 10-year-old company. From her, I learnt that the Indian Railways completely switched to biodegradable packaging a few years ago. They use materials like bagasse — an inexpensive material made from sugarcane waste — which took them 10 months to re-engineer to fit the needs of the menu and travel time.

From Ecoware’s collection

Uttar Pradesh-based Yash Pakka Ltd, a line of tableware products from bagasse, is popular within restaurant circles. A new entry in 2020 was Delhi-based Bumboo, India’s first bamboo food packaging company. The evergreen plant is a sustainable and energy conscious raw material, but most of Bumboo’s products are exported. Other players include True Green, Earthware Products and Earthsoul, to name a few.

With quick-service restaurants (QSR) and Indian and international chains opening up, and the rising demand for high-quality, eco-packaging, I noticed some trends.

1. Innovating with plants: The use of banana leaves, the dhak plant, teak plant and sal leaves has reached an all-time high. It is refreshing to see restaurants and a few grocery stores revisit our dining culture — leaves were used in temple prasadams and marriages — to innovate with packaging. This tradition has attracted the attention of the European market and a German company, Leaf Republic, is manufacturing and importing the finished goods and raw materials from India.

The leaves from a variety of plants are used as dining plates, food wraps, while frying, and also as packaging. The plates are manufactured on a small scale and the single-layered stitched ones, known as khaliare, are used for dining purposes or further turned into thick plates by heat pressing machines.

We use banana leaves at our restaurants in Delhi and Goa as plates and have received promising feedback. Meanwhile, Bhawan in the capital has created rectangular containers from khaliare to serve and deliver their street food. Jamun — in New Delhi and Goa — uses baked and unbaked clay, terracotta vessels and has also introduced sal leaf plates in a posh setting.

Key challenges

  • Consumer attitude and willingness to change is perhaps the biggest hurdle. A few people are happy to pay extra for packaging as long as it is reusable and eco-friendly, but not all. Tableware is expensive, but I still encounter situations where people are not willing to pay 10% of the bill, for example, as packaging cost. Eco-friendly packaging is 2 to 3.5 times more expensive than regular plastics and laminated materials, and this increases operational costs. It now accounts for 10% of a total order’s bill. Companies are ready to start at very competitive pricing but it all depends on monthly consumption of stock.
  • Then come the poor attempts to skirt around regulation. I’ve observed people relabel their plastic packaging as reusable plastic, as if that solves the problem. The lack of government policies that benefit the producers (the agricultural sector, especially) for imports, poor research on materials and engineering are other drawbacks. There’s an urgent need for India to set up a body that standardises the packaging we all consume.

2. Reusable materials: Products made from the areca palm, jute, lotus plant, jackfruit leaves, banyan tree leaves, banana fibre and clay are being used differently to pack and store food materials. The research has been around the freshness and temperature each material can withstand for food deliveries.

3. Bioplastics: Made from plant-derived materials, the demand for bioplastic is on the rise and many restaurants are now using this. While there are still large barriers to overcome — the number of equipped industrial facilities, for instance — this is an exciting and growing sector.

4. Smart packaging design: Companies are focussing on finding ways to reduce unnecessary materials — extra boxes, containers, bands or layers. Before the pandemic hit, I wanted to get customers to exchange old cloth bags in return for a discount coupon at the restaurant, but sadly this did not work as people weren’t keen. I am now inspired by the kokoboard boxes (which open up and can be used as plates or as a dinner mat) and potato plastic.

Packaging at Karigar Biryani

5. Less is more: Packaging that can be reused is great but customers need to see clear labelling on how to recycle or dispose it if need be. So it is easier for buyers to make informed choices.

Priestman Goode’s exchange programme

  • The London-based design consultancy’s Zero programme aims at reimagining the food delivery model. Containers (in a bento-style stacking system) and bags made from cocoa bean shells, mycelium and pineapple husk will be provided to customers, who have to pay a small fee when ordering food. They are reimbursed when they return the containers with their next order.

What’s the future?

In the next two years, I see a wider adoption of natural fibres. Most food chains, restaurants and QSRs are switching to eco-packaging and, as for tableware, areca and sugarcane bagasse are good options. Soon catering companies will also shift a part of their services to adopt eco-friendly practices — such as serving food at gatherings on reusable plateware.

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