Compostable foodservice ware can help “green” your business while creating positive environmental change with your to-go offers
By Lauren K. Olson, World Centric
As a result of the pandemic, more people than ever are ordering takeout food. While some may worry about the environmental impact of disposable ware, there is a way to “green” your business while increasing your to-go orders: compostable containers.
Studies have shown that up to three-quarters of those surveyed are willing to pay more for single-use items that had environmental materials and end-of-life attributes, including those made with renewable materials, particularly plant-based, and compostable materials.
Expanded polystyrene (often called Styrofoam™), commonly used by restaurants and foodservice businesses, has demonstrated a significant negative impact on the planet. Its composition includes a known carcinogen chemical, styrene, which has the potential to migrate into foods and the environment.
Expanded polystyrene is also difficult to recycle due to its high volume and low weight. This lightness frequently causes it to escape waste management and end up as litter. As a result, many states have banned it, including Maryland, Maine and New York, along with hundreds of municipalities.
Although recycling plastic single-use foodservice ware seems like an eco-friendly option, products are likely not recyclable if they’re contaminated with food residue. Cutlery presents a unique issue due to the size and variety of plastic materials, while traditional tree-fiber paper cups with plastic linings are not recyclable.
Recycling also continues to be a challenge due to China’s ban on subpar materials. Even before that ban, only 9% of the world’s plastic was recycled.
These factors demonstrate the difficulty in recycling foodservice products. Despite being generally priced at a premium in comparison to expanded polystyrene, compostable products provide a promising alternative.
Diverting from Landfills
Composting bypasses the need for international shipping of waste products, which contributes to the carbon footprint of recycling. Furthermore, food is not a contaminant for compostable products. More food is diverted from the landfill when compostable products are accepted. When food waste is landfilled, it creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is as much as 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Talk to your waste hauler about commercial composting and whether they accept these materials: food scraps, food waste (post-consumer), fiber, paper and bioplastic (including bioplastic linings).
Traditional tree-fiber products, such as coffee cups and soup containers, usually have a petroleum-based lining, making them non-compostable and challenging to recycle. Compostable alternatives use bioplastic such as PLA as a lining to allow the whole cup or bowl to be composted. Compostable paper foodservice ware, such as those made from rapidly renewable fibers like bamboo and sugarcane, are gaining traction.
Cutlery made from molded fiber and compostable plastics derived from corn, tapioca starches and lactic acid are alternatives to traditional plastic utensils, often unable to be recycled. Fiber cutlery has recently been introduced to the market. Wood utensils are also an option.
These compostable products help divert food waste from the landfill, since they’re easy to compost with food waste. Consumers can add them, food waste included, to their residential composting pick-up (if accepted by the commercial composter).
Material science in the compostable product category has advanced considerably in the last two decades. While compostable products disintegrate in commercial composting, they keep food fresh from the restaurant to the home. Innovation in packaging has also driven a new era of soak- and leak-proof options, which keep food intact. Plastic packaging is unable to breathe, trapping steam and causing sogginess. Yet many eco-friendly fibers keep food items crispy and fresh.
Small and mid-sized restaurants are widely perceived as more capable of incorporating sustainable disposable products. However, dozens of large foodservice and restaurant companies have proven it is possible at scale and across multiple locations.
Many sustainable product manufacturers can meet high demand and volume today. Corporate branding and other personalization are possible, as with traditional products. While price is occasionally a barrier, many operators are willing to pay a modest premium to offer their patrons a more sustainable option, especially if it enables both food and packaging waste to be composted.
Overall, making an effort to incorporate green practices into the to-go experience shows customers that you care about the environment and are offering them a premium takeout dining experience.
Look for These Labels
Not all “eco-friendly” products are compostable. Compostability requires the item to biodegrade and disintegrate according to scientific test standards of ASTM D6400 or D6868, depending on the product. Look for these eco-labels on compostable products:
• Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)
• TÜV Austria OK Compost Industrial
• Compost Manufacturing Alliance
More Steps to Take to Reduce Waste
• Ask customers if they need cutlery, napkins and sauces.
• Ask customers if they prefer the order be bagged.
• Remind employees to provide these items at a minimum, corresponding to order size.
• Experiment with reusable containers that customers can bring back for a deposit.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauren K. Olson is the Zero Waste Manager at World Centric (worldcentric.com). She holds a master’s degree in Community Sustainability, specializing in decision-making about waste, and a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Economics, both from Michigan State University.