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Internationally multi-award-winning Devon hospitality business, The Venus Company (loving the beach®) with four stunning beach cafe locations across the county, has invested significant funding into commissioning an in-depth case study by Cranfield University on the environmental impact of using sustainable palm plates for their Venus cafes.  

In 1995, husband and wife team Michael and Louisa Smith, together with Lee Porter opened the doors of The Venus Cafe (loving the beach®) at Blackpool Sands on the site of the original ‘The Venus Tea Hut’, a small wooden hut selling tea and ice-creams which Louisa’s mother, Lady Newman started in 1958. Today the company is an environmental champion with three beautiful South-Devon beach locations open all year round with cafés; takeaway and shops, located at Blackpool Sands; Bigbury-on-Sea and newly opened Broadsands in Paignton. A fourth site, East Portlemouth just a short and picturesque ferry ride from Salcombe, re-opens at Easter for the summer season, and there are also two new Venus beach cafes in the pipeline.  

The ethos and values at the heart of this pioneering company is sustainable development, and they were honoured with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development in 2005 for ‘providing the best al-fresco Mediterranean-style dining experience in a UK beach setting whilst integrating environmental and social care into every business decision’.  The company won the award again in 2010, with the Judge’s comment ‘a rare example of a sustainable cafe-chain’, which clearly demonstrates its ongoing commitment to sustainability.

Constantly striving to improve its environmental performance, Venus banned plastic straws 20 years ago in a bid to reduce plastics on the beach and in the oceans.  The latest innovation of this pioneering company is the introduction of fully-home compostable and biodegradable palm plates and wooden cutlery in all of their four beach cafes.  

With sustainable solutions at its core, the company commissioned Cranfield University, a British postgraduate public research university specialising in science, engineering, design, technology, and management to carry out the study. The University was asked to research the environmental difference between using environmentally friendly palm plates, wood cutlery and home compostable packaging vs. ceramic and china crockery with metal cutlery, which needs to be constantly cleaned in a commercial dishwasher.  

Michael Smith – M/D Venus Company said: “Sustainability is part of our DNA, and we love the beach as a habitat, so taking care of it is integral to our business philosophy; it’s essential, therefore, for us to serve the most environmentally friendly food and packaging we possibly can.”  

He explains: “The purpose of this study is to help the food service industry choose greener tableware for serving food.  Our mission is to be the greenest café and shop operator and the major investment we made into this research was for Cranfield University to analyse the environmental impact of home compostable v. china and dishwashing all day.  We have found resistance from some of our customers, particularly the older generation who struggle to understand the benefits of using palm plates and paper cups which are more environmentally friendly, than reusing china cups and plates, and replacing those that get stolen or broken. Through this funded project, we want to help educate people that by eating with us contributes towards lower CO2 as well as helping to safeguard our lovely Devon coastline, and oceans.  Our green way of working includes the introduction of using palm plates and not china, or ceramic crockery.”

Palm plates are made from the Areca palm, indigenous to India which has dense forests.  Local villagers and farmers collect the dead leaves, rinsing each raw sheath with water to remove any dirt and once clean air-dry it naturally.  The palm leaves are then hand-stretched and flattened, turning what would have been an agricultural waste product into disposable and environmentally friendly dinnerware which can be wiped clean and reused, or disposed of along with food waste, or on the compost heap in the garden.

Mr Smith comments: “There are minimal carbon emissions involved as the palm plates and wooden cutlery are single use.  We want to get the important message across that broken or overused crockery cannot be recycled, it can only be sent to commercial landfills.  We want to sustain the planet, ensuring we are not interfering, but helping to safeguard it for future generations.  No trees are harmed, and no artificial ingredients or chemicals are used in the making of the palm plates, so its nature in its purest form.”  

He adds: “It’s interesting to know just how long some of the products we use or consume take to break down and biodegrade.  Cotton, glass, and paper are recyclable; (which, in itself can be a large CO2 emitter); however, many consumers may not be aware that single-use plastic isn’t, and pollutes the Earth forever, which has a major impact on climate change.  

That’s why shifting to eco-friendly products should be our priority to protect the planet for future generations. It’s essential for the hospitality and food industry to develop natural and renewable home compostable materials, eg. corn, wood, fibre, grass, leaves.  Our home compostable palm plates and hot drinks cups and lids are made of components and materials that should fully decompose into the soil within a matter of weeks, leaving nothing behind but nutrient rich compost for the garden. It’s perfect for our customers, particularly those who are avid gardeners who love to take their cups home and throw them on the compost heap knowing they are doing something positive for the environment.”  

The Venus company likes to work with like-minded companies who share their ethos. This includes Sovereign Partners founded three decades ago, selling innovative packaging to the upmarket food and coffee to go market with sustainability as the key ingredient and who supply their palm plates.

Barbara Feldman, Founder & Chairman – Sovereign Partners Ltd. said: “One of my favourite topics is sustainable packaging and educating people on the myths and misconceptions which are still out there which is so confusing to consumers.  You only have to google ‘plastic-free coffee cups’ and up comes loads of them - all lined with PLA. which is a plastic!  Just because it is made from plants, doesn’t mean it’s not plastic and it can’t be home composted either.  She adds: “Palm leaf platters are totally natural products made from dead leaves with only water and heat added to shape the items so are ideal for home composting and truly sustainable with almost zero impact on the environment.  If they do end up in landfill they would still completely decompose, as do leaves, in around 6 – 9 weeks.”

The study research by Cranfield University focuses on the environmental impact of tableware by comparing ceramic and palm leaf plates, stainless steel, and wooden cutlery to identify which has a lesser effect on the environment.  The comparative life cycle assessment (LCA) of biobased, once-use ‘crockery’ utensils with conventional ceramic utensils that are washed by machine and used repeatedly.

Dr Adrian Williams, who supervised this Life Cycle Assessment by Cranfield University said: “Venus reduced its recurrent carbon footprint from serving food by 66% through swapping conventional serving utensils for bio-based, single-use plates and cutlery. The biggest benefit was eliminating the necessarily energy intense washing up, therefore, reducing electricity and water consumption.  Being early adopters maximises the benefits, but excessive over-exploitation of the bio-resources will have negative effects. Negative waste management reduces the benefits while positive waste management increases them.”

He concludes: “The study carried out a comparative, cradle-to-grave, life cycle assessment to quantify climate change and water impacts of ceramic plates and palm plates, steel cutlery and wooden cutlery. The results show that making and using palm plates and wooden cutlery have lower global warming potentials and water impacts than reusable ceramic plates and steel cutlery, which incur very high manufacturing impacts.  In conclusion, the overall impact of changing to palm plates and wooden cutlery; potentially saves Venus causing the emissions of 3.2 tons of CO2 equivalents per site.”