At a food festival — what seems like years ago — there are people walking about with food in hand. Hot dogs, haleem, prawns, cheetos this and lotus that. And then — a group of girls and boys holding up a box of “eco-friendly” cutlery, asking anyone who would listen to use the utensils on offer instead of using plastic.
“It is free,” they are heard saying and yet, unlike with other things that carry the label “free” at a food festival, the response is lukewarm.
This group of people are from Eco-Pak — one of the first businesses to market eco-friendly cutlery and packaging in Pakistan.
“I left my job in a sudden Bollywood moment to start my own business,” says Sameed Anis, owner of Eco-Pak. “I had a deep interest in food, which is why a food packaging business was a serious option and that is when it clicked: if I was taking on the gigantic task of bringing food grade packaging to Pakistan, why not make it eco-friendly as well.”
Others, however, were not as enthused with the idea.
“After I started advertising, I received a lot of calls from restaurant owners but they said they would only shift if the price of the eco-friendly packaging was equal to the price of plastic, which they were currently using,” shares Anis.
Muhammad Fasieh, senior brand manager at GreenO Juices says, “It’s not just that the the eco-friendly options are expensive, the plastic packaging also make our products look cool and attractive because they are transparent and you can see the smoothies.”
Their juices and coffee are still in eco-friendly packaging, however.
While early adoption from restaurants was low for similar reasons, as the conversation around sustainability and climate change continues to forge on, customers started to speak up. Posts started appearing on online food groups calling out restaurants and shops that were selling their products in plastic bags and using excessive packaging.
Dosti Zahra, a fitness instructor who runs The Strength Project, says she makes an effort to only buy from businesses that are eco-friendly. “I haven’t bought a plastic bag home in several years and take my own bags for grocery shopping.”
Sweet Greens, a delivery and takeaway service for healthy meal plans, were prompted by customers to shift to a different packaging.
“We were initially using a lot of plastic,” says Ovais Ahmed, the owner of Sweet Greens, “but our customers told us to change and reduce our packaging and so we did.”
Over the last few years, more places offering eco-friendly food packaging and utensils have cropped up and “eco-friendly” has become a term that people want to stand behind. Restaurants like Evergreen that started using metal straws were being applauded.
But then, the pandemic hit.
“Covid-19 began as a curse,” says Anis. “After Karachi Eat 2020, major restaurants had started to come on board with us. We had worked really hard for this and were finally seeing the results we wanted when Covid happened.
“Restaurants shut down and even when they opened, they moved back to plastic to cut costs,” he says.
Restaurants who had earlier moved to using Birchwood cutlery and Kraft packaging found that they still needed to use plastic to cater to an increasing number of takeaway and delivery orders. Most food places were shifting to delivery-only mode for the first time and resorted to what was most commonly available.
The metal straws that a few businesses had started using had to be ditched because of safety concerns. “People would not feel comfortable using metal straws that have been used by someone else earlier,” says Ahsan Syed, owner of WannaSnacc. “They are more for personal use now, such that each person can bring their own if they want, because a restaurant keeping them would mean re-using them for different customers.” A clear no-no in Covid times.
Places like Coffee Waghera took to the situation by announcing a 10% discount for people who brought their own reusable mug for takeaways. Other restaurants also claimed that they would allow this practice but in reality, it was a strange concept for most to accept, says Zahra.
“A lot of places don’t understand [the concept of] you bringing your own bags," she said. I’ve been refused service at a leading supermarket myself. "And my personal water bottle has been confiscated at several places forcing me to buy a plastic bottle if I was thirsty,” she says.
Syed says incentivising repeat customers with a discount for bringing their own reusable mugs and cutlery is still the way to go if businesses are to do away with plastic or single-use utensils altogether.
With volatile revenues due to the pandemic and rising costs, it remains to be seen how many restaurants are able to still go ahead in the direction of shifting to eco-friendly packaging.
Sarwan Aly, the owner of No Lies Fries — a fries and burger joint — says it will be harder to carry the practice of using eco-friendly packaging during the pandemic as it is much more expensive.
Ahmed, meanwhile, says it is “only sustainable if people support it.”
GreenO, while currently using plastic packaging for some of their products, has plans to shift completely to eco-friendly options in the future because “GreenO believes in a greener Pakistan,” shares Fasieh.
In terms of overall adoption, it is easy to see that a lot more advocacy needs to happen before we are able to see a substantial number of restaurants get on board with 100% eco-friendly packaging and cutlery — something that has been made even more difficult by the pandemic. With increasing restrictions on dining and the food industry, is the environment even a primary concern for businesses?
Anis thinks it all comes down to what the customers demand from businesses. “Recently, every restaurant had advertised they were following Covid SOPs better than anyone because that was something customers held them accountable for. I want to see the same happen for eco-friendly packaging.”