Glass straws and fresh produce help zap plastic waste

Although some major retailers and fast-food outlets have announced that they will be reducing their plastic footprint over the next few years, at least one restaurant group in Johannesburg is already doing so.

“When it comes to plastic and stuff, the only thing I can honestly say we use for plastic — because of health regulations — is bin bags,” said James Diack, the founder of the Brightside Group, which owns four environmentally conscious and sustainable restaurants across the city.

At his Parkhurst restaurant, Coobs, Diack said that waste reduction, recycling and reusing had long been part of the group’s identity, since it opened its first restaurant six years ago.

READ MORE: There’s much more to the plastic pollution crisis than carrier bags

“I came from a fine dining background in Cape Town and the waste there was a problem,” said Diack. “I couldn’t believe we had to waste so much — you use this little bit and have to throw it away.

“When we opened Coobs, we opened it with that in mind.”

The restaurant tries to eliminate all unnecessary waste. Diack said he and his staff also focus on serving seasonal ingredients to minimise the amount of plastic packaging used.

And, because his family owns a farm, they are also able to avoid sourcing heavily packaged food from mainstream suppliers. All leftover fresh produce is sent back to the Brightside farm to be used as compost or insecticide.

The most obvious sign, at least to the customer, of the restaurant’s green consciousness is its recent shift to using glass straws.

“It was a chink in our armour,” said Diack. “It has been a big financial outlay. These things cost R50 apiece and, across four restaurants, we have just under 800 straws.

“People break them or steal them, but we had to do it.”

This month, Pick n Pay andWoolworths announced plans to reduce and phase out nonrecyclable plastic waste in their stores, from packaging to straws and earbuds.

Professor Peter Ryan, the director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, said South Africa has come to the party late compared with other countries.

Ryan said that, for a small population, South Africa had a disturbingly high level of plastic pollution. The country is ranked 11th among the worst polluting nations in the world, in terms of dumping plastic into the seas. He attributed this to the large quantities of packaging used and the mismanagement of waste at local government level.

On the whole, he added, plastics weren’t bad and banning them wouldn’t be practical as they are an essential part of many product applications. Instead, Ryan stressed that the focus should mainly be on single-use plastics.

READ MORE: New study reveals global plans to curb single-use plastic pollution

“We shop in a fairly sophisticated packaging environment. There’s an awful lot of plastic which goes into packaging — in fact, relative to the global average, we put more of our plastics into packaging,” he said.

Globally, he said, an average of about 40% of plastic goes into single-use items, whereas in South Africa it’s more than 50%.

Ryan said this situation was exacerbated by a dysfunctional municipal system that was teetering on the brink of collapse.

“Our default position is that it goes into a landfill; that is not a sustainable solution. Plastics have value. Unfortunately, waste plastics don’t quite have enough value to sort or subsidise their recovery,” said Ryan.

“We need to make it easy for consumers to sort at the source and find ways to unlock the value of used plastics,” he said

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial reporter at the M&G

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Tebogo Tshwane
Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University. 

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