Reusable foodware presents an exciting opportunity to address the ongoing crisis of disposable single-use products in the food service sector.
In the United States alone, nearly one trillion disposable food service products are used each year. The result is a significant environmental cost - plastic pollution, the destruction of natural resources and a contribution to climate change. Garbage on the beach and street consist mainly of packaging products from grocery stores, convenience outlets, restaurants and cafes.
There is also a considerable financial cost attached to the overuse of disposables. This includes taxpayer costs to clean up litter, ongoing costs to businesses to create waste management systems, and the opportunity cost to use those funds on something more sustainable. Indeed, $24 billion is spent by food service businesses on disposables every year. Around $6 billion is also spent by companies and municipal governments on waste management costs attributable to disposable foodware.
Products that are reusable in food service, however, present a unique chance to tackle these problems head on. By encouraging the manufacture and use of products such as reusable cups plates and containers, and by transitioning from single-use to reuse in food service, we have a real shot at transforming the food service sector for the better.
How COVID-19 is exacerbating the food waste problem
The Coronavirus has very regrettably led to increase in plastic waste across the world. The consumption of single-use plastic products has surged by 250 to 300% since the beginning of the pandemic. This in turn has led to an increase in 30% of waste, attributable to plastic packing, disposable foodware and COVID-19 related products such as face masks and hand sanitiser.
The thrive of e-commerce has also unfortunately intensified the rise of plastic waste. People flocked to online stores and food delivery services like UberEats in droves. In fact, in the United States alone, online shopping and takeaway food orders boosted by 78%. Even before the pandemic, The New York Times reported that food delivery service apps were ‘drowning China in plastic’.
Policy makers and businesses are working hard to locate a more sustainable solution for single-use plastics in food service, but the truth is simple: single-use packaging as an environmental solution will never work. Targeting specifically plastics alone misses the mark.
Rather, the fundamental problem underlying plastic pollution is a throwaway culture that’s been engineered in modern society. It is our way of life that’s driving plastic pollution and most, if not all, environmental problems the world is experiencing today. Therefore, the only way we can truly tackle the problem is a cultural shift from single-use to reuse.
Why substitutes to single-use foodware do not work
Conventional ‘substitutes’ to single use plastics are sometimes heralded as the alternative solution to traditional plastic products in the food services industry. This includes paper, wood, aluminium and – most importantly – bioplastics. Products crafted from these materials do more harm than good for the environment, and we’ll explain this in detail below.
Bioplastics derive from plants and crops such as corn and starch. Despite the misleading use of the word “bio”, not all of these plastics are designed to be biodegradable. Most are designed simply to act like normal petroleum-based polymers. Further, just because they are made from plants, it does not mean that there is a lower environmental footprint. Fossil fuels are often used to process the plants for so-called “bio”-based materials, which is then converted into plastic.
Generally, compostable plastic foodware like containers and packaging may have smaller Global Warming Potential (GWP) when composted. But most are not composted. They are landfilled or incinerated, creating a higher GWP. The problem is made worse because, even when these products are composted, the bioplastics have much higher impacts on acidification, water use, ozone depletion and toxicity.
Compostable bioplastics also contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases. This is because emissions are released into the atmosphere as these plastics are being produced. Indeed, growing crops like corn and starch to create bioplastics require burning significant amounts of fossil fuels. Growing these crops for biomaterials also contaminates soil with pesticides and can cause an overloading of nutrients in waterways (leading to the creation of so-called ‘dead zones’ through the process of eutrophication).
Many people perceive wood products as a positive alternative to single-use plastics. The reality, unfortunately, is that these ‘eco-friendly’ products are created through the process of forest-clearing, and the use of harmful chemicals. This includes herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.
The clearing of wood also comes with management practices themselves which are not eco-friendly. This results in harmful consequences such as the depletion of topsoil, increased erosion and the contamination of water resources.
Aluminium products are well-known to be recyclable which, at a first glance, makes them seem like attractive alternatives to plastics.
But, once again, the reality is not so rosy. The production process for aluminium results in a significant amount of air pollution and land use exploitation. The process requires decimating huge areas of land in order to mine raw bauxite, which is then taken to a highly energy-intensive smelter (relying largely on the burning of coal). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, realising perfluorocarbons when smeltering aluminium is 9,200 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on global warming.
Paper is another ‘alternative’ to plastic that is perceived as a more environmentally sustainable way to consume food and beverages. Objects like paper straws, paper plates and paper cups are incredibly popular, and people seem to think they are doing the natural environment a favour by preferring them to single-use plastics.
But the reality is again different. Three billion trees are cut down every year to create paper packaging. A lot of these trees come from endangered forests. We know this to be devastating for human civilisation, which relies on the ability of forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere and exert oxygen.
Reusable foodware is the only solution
The only solution to the problem of unsustainable foodware production is creating a reuse culture – and that means transitioning from single-use to reuse in food service. The action required is moving away with the harmful single-use plastics we are so accustomed to, and embracing the manufacture and use of products like reusable containers, cups, plates and sustainable reusable food packaging as a new norm.
There is a prevailing misconception that reusable products are more expensive to use than single-use products, but this is simply incorrect. The data indicates that $5 billion is saved by the food service companies who don’t use disposables for their on-site dining experiences. Further, $5.1 billion is saved by municipal governments and companies on waste management costs which are attributable to disposable food packaging.
There are plenty more benefits to embracing reusable products in food service:
Reusable foodware emits a lower rate of greenhouse gas emissions compared to other disposable alternatives like single-use plastics. The bulk of these emissions for disposables occur during the manufacturing phase, such as through burning fossil fuels.
Reuse also saves water. A massive amount of water is used in the manufacturing process when disposable foodware products are created. In fact, using 500 paper cups is estimated to consume nearly 370 gallons (1,400 litres) of water. Now while water is used to wash reusables, this impact can easily be alleviated with efficient dishwashing systems.
Reuse can save money, especially for small businesses. It is not just environmental benefits that we can reap when switching to reusables. Studies have shown that in 100% of restaurant case studies, reused saved money for on-site dining 100% of the time. This ranged from savings of up to $22,000 for small businesses to removing up to 225,000 packaging items per company.
Rise of reusable foodware companies and services
Despite the resistance of many, the reuse economy in food service is booming. More and more businesses are beginning to realise the value that customers place on their environmental footprint. As a result, many are seeking to demonstrate that they too are a sustainable brand.
There are a wide range of innovative companies embracing the circular economy. There are also plenty of established brands making a transition into a reusable way of doing commerce. We’ll outline some of these exciting ventures below.
McDonald’s take-back scheme
In 2021, six McDonalds outlets in Northampton, United Kingdom, were chosen to participate in an experiment: the development of a reuse platform that would be a first for the world’s largest fast food chain. The experiment, in partnership with Loop, would introduce returnable coffee cups to the famous McDonalds menu, helping customers save more money and produce less waste.
The design of the cup itself is particularly interesting. It is crafted from single-use coffee cups which have sturdy engineered polypropylene (PP) plastic as an ingredient. The plastic quantity is reduced through using recycled paper cup material in the outer layer.
For the price of only £1, a McDonalds customer would be incentivised to bring their cup back to a collection bin, which would then be sent for cleaning to be re-used. Those customers that participate in the scheme would receive 20p off their next medium hot drink – therefore breaking even after making the purchase five times.
“To help do our collective bit in reducing the amount of single-use coffee cups going to recycling or landfill,” the company said, “customers can now choose a returnable hot drink cup through the Drive-thru, kiosks and front counter in these restaurants – and save money in the process”.
Burger King reusable packaging
In 2020, Loop also partnered with Burger King to promote the use of reusable containers similar to McDonalds. Starting in 2021, restaurants in New York, Tokyo and Portland implemented an offer where customers could buy their favourite Whopper meal and receive it in sustainable reusable food packaging. It is part of Burger King’s Restaurant Brands for Good plan.
Similar to the McDonalds plan, Burger King would charge a deposit for each package which a customer can get back by scanning their container on the Loop app and returning it to either Burger King or to a collection point operated by Loop. In September 2021, the company reported that they were “halfway through the trial, and we’ve had some really positive comments from customers”.
Waitrose says ‘no more disposable cups…ever’
UK-based supermarket company Waitrose took the reuse idea one step further and decided to outright prohibit disposable coffee cups in their 180 in-store cafes. Customers were forced to bring their own cups if they were to receive complimentary tea or coffee. Waitrose said this was necessary to move away from disposables and increase efforts to reduce the harmful effects of plastics and packaging.
The company announced: “We realise this is a major change, but we believe removing all takeaway disposable cups is the right thing to do for our business”. They also said that they are “confident the majority of customers will support the environmental benefits”.
Re:Dish is a unique U.S.-based solution designed to address the disposable products issue by providing meals to their customers in sustainable reusable food packaging like containers and cups. Their aim is to remove the need for single-use disposable packaging for the food they deliver.
Their business in simple. They deliver and collect products like containers and cups, sanitise them and then return them to customers. Their client base is significant, ranging from elementary and high schools to offices. Virtually anywhere that food is provided on a large scale. They also operate their own online board known as DishTrack, which helps their customers manage their inventory and track their environmental impact as they go.
Sharewares is based in Vancouver, Canada, and their innovative reusable idea is making a positive impact across the city. Customers can visit a partner restaurant or café and ask for a reusable container. They will pay a small deposit to borrow the cup or container, eat their food and then return it to one of the bins in the city through a QR Code system. They’ll create an account that will help them navigate the Sharewares system.
The company will pick up the containers that customers have left in the bin, wash them, and return credits to their customers’ accounts.
The future of reusables in food services
The bottom line is that reusable foodware greatly assists in the reduction of plastic pollution,
addressing climate change and saving business much-needed money. It is a complete win-win scenario for everybody involved, and the only logical way to address the disposable foodware problem in the years to come.
We are looking forward to the future as more and more companies are changing their ways of doing business. Consumers place massive amounts of value on companies doing the right thing for the environment, and industry is beginning to take notice. Once this truly becomes mainstream, only then can we make modern throwaway culture a thing of the past.
Get your business using reusable foodware – and be part of the solution.