Straws are just a small piece of the foodservice sustainability puzzle

The abundance of recent announcements by cities and foodservice companies enacting bans on plastic drinking straws can make it seem like straws are the chief culprit when it comes to plastic waste. However, straws make up a small portion of plastic waste, and over-emphasizing efforts to get rid of straws could distract from a more comprehensive approach to foodservice sustainability that would have a much greater impact than focusing on straws alone. As off-premise sales continue to grow for restaurants, foodservice packaging will only proliferate, so it’s important that restaurants invest in packaging that’s more sustainable from the start and help consumers dispose of it responsibly.

“Because foodservice packaging is so ubiquitous and it’s used by so many on a daily basis there is a natural assumption that it is a far greater contributor to the environment than it really is, said Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute. EPA data show that paper and plastic waste from foodservice packaging makes up just 1.6% by weight of total municipal solid waste -- and straws account for just a small fraction of that.

To further cut down on the amount of foodservice packaging that ends up as waste, restaurants should make sure they’re purchasing recyclable materials and disposing of them properly. A high percentage of restaurant operators report that they recycle, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2017 Restaurant Sustainability Survey, which found that 29% of restaurants recycle rigid plastics such as cups, some 22% recycle cling wrap and other flexible plastics, and 65% recycle paper and cardboard.

These figures are likely to increase in coming years, as laws mandating recycling and/or composting in restaurants are becoming more common. Many of these laws focus on back-of-house operations, but there are seven cities, counties and districts that require front-of-house recycling and/or composting of some foodservice packaging.

Placing clearly labeled bins and instructions on signage or even the packaging itself can help encourage diners to put their used containers and utensils in the right place when they’re finished. However, differences in recycling capabilities from place to place can make this a more difficult proposition for restaurants with multiple locations.

“Recycling and composting is still very much a local issue, so while you may be able to recycle your paper cups in Washington, D.C., you may not be able to do that in Alexandria, [Va.], right now,” Dyer said. “We’re at a point where you may not be able to have a national message, but certainly from a local standpoint that’s a little easier.”

Another factor that can compromise a foodservice operator’s recycling strategy is the rise in off-premise dining. Some 86% of diners are using off-premise services at least once a month, and  a third report using them more than they did a year ago, Technomic’s Melissa Wilson said at a restaurant conference in April.

“Ultimately, the largest percentage of foodservice packaging is disposed of in the home because so many people get it to go,” Dyer said.

This growing movement of packaging and utensils being taken out of the restaurant has driven more operators to consider the full life cycle of foodservice packaging, Dyer said. Recycling and composting packages at the end of their life can help reduce waste, but buying packages made from more sustainable materials also has a positive impact on the environment that isn’t dependant on what customers do with the package once they leave the restaurant.

Nearly three in four operators said they buy at least some packaging and supplies that contain recycled materials, the National Restaurant Association survey found. There’s a wide variety of sustainable packaging and utensils on the market, and operators should “talk to their suppliers about what’s available to them,” said Laura Abshire, the National Restaurant Association’s director of sustainability policy and government affairs.

Operators should also talk with suppliers about products that they’d like to see offered, and give feedback on how products could be improved. Making sure product performance doesn’t suffer as sustainability improves is key for restaurants, where customer experience is paramount.

“Foodservice packaging is very much a vital part of a foodservice operator’s business, because it enables those customers to have that same dine-in experience on the go...whether it’s delivery or catering,” Dyer said. “If the consumer has a bad experience with the food because of packaging...the consumer is not going to come back.”

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