Burgers in a bagasse box and sambar in a bottle. This #PlasticFreeJuly, we scan how restaurants and supermarkets across the country are pivoting to sustainable packaging
The lockdowns have not been kind to those of us who enjoy gastronomic expeditions. Takeaway and food delivery have made protracted lockdowns almost bearable. But, with India’s online food delivery market set to grow at a staggering 28.94% during 2020-2026, managing food delivery waste poses problems of its own.
In anticipation, restaurants and cloud kitchens are reinventing their branding and packaging game.
When dressing to the nines and venturing out is not always an option, restaurants are trying to replicate that experience indoors. For Shaariq Akhtar, resident manager at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, take-out orders must offer the same luxury as dine-in experiences.
Their Gourmet Couch packaging is food specific: ceramic dishes for steaming biryani, corn starch boxes for fluffy kulchas, and glass bottles for beverages, maintaining freshness and form, across distance and delivery times.
With over 50 orders a day, the hotel sees how customers respond positively to sustainable packaging, and that makes it worth the extra cost. Plant-based packaging that uses bagasse, areca leaves or corn starch is typically more expensive than plastic tubs purchased wholesale. But Shaariq opines, “offering biodegradable boxes, or mason jars, allows them to be composted or reused and our patrons appreciate that”.
This perspective is everything. Working with hospitality chains like the Taj and Oberoi, coffee majors Starbucks and Blue Tokai, and grocery platforms like Foodhall and Reliance Retail, Pappco Greenware’s products also come at a slightly higher price point. Co-founder Abhishek Agarwal breaks it down: “Each clamshell box today delivers food that is at least worth ₹150-200. The bagasse clamshell costs anywhere around ₹4-10, depending on the size. So it’s really affordable. Just not at a throwaway price, like plastic.”
He adds, “We started out with bagasse, but that was only one piece of the puzzle. We expanded to paper, wood and bamboo, helping brands use 100% eco-friendly packaging that biodegrades in 60-90 days.”
Similarly, Corugami, a Pune-based packaging firm, looks to reduce packaging like plastic tape and superfluous paper bags, by adding handles to boxes. Its focus now is on “custom, local, eco-friendly packaging solutions for Indian favourites such as dosas, where vendors can create boxes that preserve the crispness of a rolled dosa,” says Corugami co-founder Udit Bansal.
Responsible packaging lends itself to cuisine that caters to a lot of moving parts. DIY chaat, for instance, is the star component of ITC’s signature Chaat and Chat offering.
Design, after all, is an important factor while replicating dine-in luxury. Mumbai-based Hunger Inc. Hospitality, that delivers upto 70 orders a day through its restaurants O Pedro and The Bombay Canteen, has moved beyond bagasse. Co-founder Yash Bhanage says, “We now prefer kraft paper boxes that exude a rustic charm. For our beverages, glass is preferred, and we use banana leaves within our boxes, as a lining to prevent oil stains. For our Independence Day daawat last year, we had customised corrugated boxes, with handles. That was the perfect vehicle for our mains and condiments.”
What is sustainable?
- Sustainable packaging refers to packaging with an environmental footprint that reduces over time. According to EthicoIndia, this can be achieved in three ways:
- 1) Material: 100% recyclable and/or eco-friendly packaging raw material
- 2) Method of production: Production processes and supply chains with smaller carbon footprints
- 3) Recyclability: A circular economy, wherein the life cycle and usefulness of the package is extended
The past year also saw a jump in the number of kitchens delivering homely fare — an experience that just does not feel as warm when the food offered is ensconced in plastic, points out Mumbai-based Marina Balakrishnan. Marina helms Oottupura, a home-to-table, vegetarian kitchen offering everything Malayali, from puttu to pazham pori.
Says Marina, “During lockdown, I had to factor in how long the food travelled and tailor my menus and packaging to suit delivery logistics.”
Picking the right packing
She adds, “Kerala cuisine is savoured best on a banana leaf, which I include in my boxes. All containers are bagasse or paper -based. My pachadis which use yogurt, are sent out in bottles since a lot of condensate builds up in boxes; it is not a pleasant experience to get a soggy container.”
The ability of the material to travel well is another key factor. Shikha Lakhanpal, co-founder and COO at Living Food Company, an online marketplace for fresh produce and artisanal cuisine, says, “It all depends on weight, size, moisture content, shape, climate requirement and hygiene metrics. We use areca bowls for our microgreens, and source directly from farmers on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Salem, Hosur, Mysuru and Ramnagaram.”
Choice of packaging also depends on the food. “Greens are packed better in sal leaves, while more delicate produce like pumpkin flowers are packed in castor leaves, as suggested by our farmer partners,” explains Shameek Chakravarty, co-founder of Farmizen, an app that helps Bengaluru’s city dwellers with a community-powered alternative food system.
It relies heavily on its farmers to use sustainable agro-based packaging. He points out, “In many cases, natural packaging actually performs better than artificial ones. It lets the produce breathe.”
Sustainability has to be viewed not only in terms of material but the carbon footprint as well, remarks Udit, adding, “Agro-waste is a great local resource.”
The effort at eco-friendliness does not stop at the restaurant’s doorstep, reminds Augustine Kurian, partner at DumBir, a Chennai-based delivery vertical that creates sustainable bento boxes for biryani. “Sustainability is a cycle and we can ensure responsible packaging but our customers must segregate and compost waste appropriately, and our cities must make it easier to recycle,” he says.
Going completely plastic-free may be a pipe dream, but we can get closer to it, as long as we innovate.