As the tide of political and public opinion turns against plastic, one restaurant and take-away food business is pioneering the war against single use plastic at its premises at Trinity Square, Gateshead.

Chloe Wilson and partner Darren Appleton launched their healthy food café and takeaway, NU TO GO just two months ago with a strong focus not only on providing healthy and nutritious food, but with a pledge to ensure that their carbon footprint and waste output would be as minimal as possible.

Their vision was to create a sustainable and environmentally friendly business, and this meant rethinking the usual food packaging, the majority of which is plastic or contains plastic.

At the outset they looked immediately beyond these mainstream solutions and towards planet friendly options. This has resulted in ingredients for all meat and vegetable produce being sourced locally and the use of packaging materials that cause the least damage to the environment.

NU TO GO researched eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and opted for cornstarch packaging that is plant not plastic based. Cornstarch is a relatively new material that has been developed using polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from fermented sugars. Corn is the least expensive and most abundant source of commercially available sugar and also cheap and easy to produce.  It can be turned into fibre or film that looks like regular plastic but is 100% biodegradable and compostable. Importantly, it is also food safe and resistant to food fats and oils, has a high aroma barrier and is low flammability.

As owners of the business, Chloe and Darren feel that they have a moral duty to ensure that they do not create any more waste than necessary and believe that businesses need to do more to help people make environmental choices. Chloe said:

“NU TO GO’s approach to healthy food choices also extends to the use of packaging that is “healthy” for the environment.  All of our meals and sandwiches are packed in cornstarch boxes, cartons and sandwich bags and coffee and tea is served in cornstarch cups. The napkins are made from recycled paper and even the take-out cutlery and stirrers are made from wood.”

The use of plastic is firmly on the political and cultural agenda, but many organisations are choosing to delay reducing their plastic consumption until government legislation comes into power.  Chloe is convinced that many businesses just aren’t doing enough, she continued:

“For us, not only is it a considered choice, but it has been a case of finding an alternative solution that would already be compliant with any regulations before they are introduced.

“The government’s proposed ban on single use plastics such as straws has prompted a number of multi-national chains to pledge their support with the banning of plastic straws in their restaurants and bars in the next year.  When 1.8 million plastic straws are discarded every day in the UK and 5000 coffee cups every minute, it seems to be a very small commitment. They could do so much more.”

The environmental benefit of plant-based packaging is that it is compostable, and importantly, for the foodservice and catering sector, this means food and packaging waste can be recycled together.  It can be put into compost heaps or landfill where it will break down in around 12 weeks, or if recycled commercially it returns as fertilizer for use by farmers to replace nutrients back into the soil.

Many foodservice providers are unable to recycle if they use plastic packaging as remaining food waste can contaminate an entire recyclable load at sorting stations, predictably this includes cardboard pizza boxes and jars and cans that haven’t been emptied or rinsed out which, ends up being burnt or sent to landfill where plastic items will remain indefinitely.

NU TO GO receives support from Northumbria University’s Student and Graduate Enterprise Service which provides enterprise skills training and start-up support for its students and graduates.   Graham Baty, enterprise manager at Northumbria University has noticed a distinct trend for eco-friendly businesses within the wide range of businesses that the university supports. He said:

“There is definitely an acute awareness of environmental issues and we are seeing many of our entrepreneurs focusing not just on creating profitable businesses but those which create positive social and environmental impacts.

“NU TO GO is committed to improving its eco-friendly credentials at a time when we all need to be more thoughtful about the products we buy which could have a long-term impact on our environment.

“Chloe and Darren have shown a clear aptitude for evaluating the options and potential impacts both for their business and the environment.”

Since 2012 Northumbria University’s graduate start-up programme has successfully supported more than 120 entrepreneurs whose companies employ over 1000 staff and have a combined annual turnover of £80m.  Northumbria University is ranked first in the UK for graduate start-ups (HEBCIS 2015/16).

Northumbria University Student and Graduate Enterprise service is supported by the European Regional Development Fund.