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. Furt