Packaging: cutting plastic and carbon from katsu curry

Tray with five new recyclable delivery bowls: three are round, two with lids stacked on top of one another, the third is open showing food; one oval bowl has lid, other displays food inside. Chopsticks and Wagamama branded napkins in foreground

During lockdown, home delivery and takeaway food naturally boomed in popularity, but, unfortunately, so did the waste impact, especially where single-use plastic packaging was concerned.

In a bid to help tackle the pollution problem, British restaurant chain Wagamama is launching a sustainable packaging solution to replace eight million items with recyclable material, cutting 330 tonnes of virgin plastic from the supply chain and waste stream every year.

The new packaging is made from crystallised polyethylene terephthalate (cPET), which is a tougher, more heat-resistant variation on the standard PET often used for water and soft drinks bottles. Switching to cPET will reduce the carbon footprint of the brand’s most popular dish, the katsu curry, by a whopping 62%. 

The make-up of the new packaging material is the result of four years of planning, plus advice from leading plastic experts, UK waste collectors, suppliers and cutting-edge product designers. With nationwide roll-out begun August 15, the initiative will be live across all restaurants and delivery kitchens by October this year.

Bowl Bank to boost packaging returns to restaurants

Alongside the new packaging material, Wagamama will also be launching its bowl-return programme Bowl Bank. Taking ownership of its waste, the brand will be inviting guests to return their packaging to their local restaurant, with the bring-back option again available in every one of Wagamama’s outlets by October 2022.

Addressing packaging industry waste issues is no easy task, explains Wagamama CEO Thomas Heier:

“Reducing our use of virgin plastics is a complicated mission — but one we have been dedicated to for four years. This has been driven by the belief that we needed do better for our guests, teams and the planet.

“Months of trial and error, conversations with leading experts, and research into UK waste streams has resulted in a moment where we can finally say we’re proud of our packaging. Proving small choices make for big change and sustainable progress doesn’t happen overnight. This is an exciting and overdue step for us but only the beginning.”

Wagamama is one of the first in the hospitality sector to use cPET for the bases of its food bowls. As a food-safe material made from 70% recycled content, cPET is more commonly used for supermarket ready meals. Unlike most other PETs, it has excellent heat resistance, making it perfect for delivering hot ramen.

The remaining 30% of the packaging products will be plastics which are needed to maintain the structural integrity of the container. Each piece of packaging has been nipped and tucked to ensure the new bowls are the perfect fit for portion sizes and no excess material is used, as a result.

To improve the design specification still further, the containers now come in a lighter creamy sand colour, to ensure the bowls and lids will more easily be detected by Near Infra Red (NIR) scanners in recycling plants.

Wagamama has also opted for an easily recyclable PP lid and is working with project partners to get to a fully cPET solution within 18 months — sustainable change can be about progress, as well as perfection.

Expert advisor to Wagamama on cPET, President of the UK Recycling Association, Simon Ellin comments:

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see businesses like Wagamama take accountability for their waste and go to great lengths to research and understand the complex nature of the UK recycling landscape. There’s so much misinformation and false claims about where rubbish goes, you really need to take the time to fully understand the problem.

“Assessing their business needs, I’m confident cPET is the most sustainable option available to them at this time, and I’m pleased to see they have invested in this option. They will be leading consumer behaviour change with their ‘Bowl Bank’ initiative, and it would be brilliant to see more return initiatives like this from their peers.”

The design is a win-win, adds Jo Barnard, Creative Director of design and innovation agency Morrama:

“Wagamama were willing to take educated risks and allow their main sustainability objective to lead the project. We continuously balanced bettering guest and team experience with sustainability. We have reached a truly unique solution which reduces a massive amount of virgin plastic while still achieving the much-loved ‘bowl to soul’ aesthetic.”

The move by Wagamama appears particularly smart in light of the legislative net tightening increasingly around packaging waste, as evidenced by the draft bill published recently by the Welsh Government to ban single-use plastic for such as cutlery, straws and polystyrene takeaway containers.

Two new recyclable delivery bowls full of food, with chopsticks across one, plus Wagamama paper below.

Plant-based options make up half the new menu

Wagamama has also been prioritising sustainability with the food that is going into the new bowls.

Known for its katsu curry, rice and noodles, Wagamama has been promoting plant-based eating as one of the most powerful choices that consumers can make in the fight against climate change.

As part of the its 2021 Positive Action Plan, the restaurant pledged to make half its menu plant-based by the end of the year. It met this commitment three months early with the new menu launch, last October.

Wagamama achieved its 50% plant-based menu goal by launching dishes like Spicy Teriyaki Vegan ‘Chicken’ Steamed Buns, Spicy Vegan ‘Short Rib’ Ramen, Teriyaki Vegan ‘Chicken’ Ramen, plus Shu’s ‘Shiok’ Jackfruit.

As part of a drive to position the brand in the vanguard of mainstream veganism, Wagamama claims this shift has made it the UK’s first high street restaurant to give plant-based dishes equal share on a menu. 

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