— By Ray Hatch —
How restaurants can help curb the plastics epidemic.
With 2020 having been set as a benchmark for business’ sustainability programs, many restaurant operations are working hard to achieve their waste-reduction goals. One area that restaurants are starting to focus their attention, and rightly so, is on the problem of post-consumer waste. Your operation can be squeaky clean and generating a relatively low volume of waste, but once you account for single-use packaging… your environmental footprint becomes significantly larger. Nothing can derail an environmental program in a food-related industry quite like single-use packaging, and the advent of food delivery services is adding to the food packaging problem.
Imagine having an all-organic product that is made with almost no waste to speak of — but when it’s time to hand it to the consumer, your product is in a plastic container that is a miniature environmental disaster by itself. Even a “recyclable” cardboard box isn’t recyclable after it’s gotten food residue and grease on it. And that’s the problem: The current focus on sustainability seems to stop at the consumer, no matter what the industry. As the concept of a circular economy begin to take hold, and as consumers are increasingly seeking eco-conscious solutions, restaurants are looking for ways to curb post-consumer waste. The first item on most agendas is plastic waste.
The concern over the non-biodegradable nature of modern plastics isn’t a new one. Since the 1970s, environmentalists have been warning the world about the dependence of a material that does not break down in nature. Since then, plastic production has only increased. Dramatically.
The Problem: Current Consumer Plastics Waste
The current global production of plastics is roughly 350 million tons a year, and less than 10% of that plastic is recycled. The simple math on that states that 315 million tons of plastic get sent to landfills, are incinerated or end up misplaced in the environment somewhere (like the 8 million tons a year that end up in our oceans). The problem is blatantly obvious, but the solution is not so cut-and-dry.
The Solution: TRULY Sustainable Packaging
Until consumers are willing to pay more and use reusable packaging, the industry is researching and investing in fascinating, innovative packaging ideas that are either edible, readily compostable, or can biodegrade in water in a matter of a few weeks. These innovations in food packaging are steps in the right direction toward curbing consumer waste, and in most cases, are just cool. They are ideas packed with consumer appeal that can be marketed to even the pickiest customers — and can give your business an edge on your competition.
Here are just a few ideas from the emerging market of sustainable packaging:
- Leak-proof sealed paper packaging: The bags are made for bulk products like grain or flour but could easily be used in the restaurant business as doggy bags for leftovers, or as packaging for delivered meals.
- Fully compostable containers: The containers are completely sealable and feature a mixture of rigid paper containers or are made of seaweed or even sustainable wood fibers along and compostable bio-plastic lids. Again, the usefulness for delivered food orders is endless.
- Edible packaging: Some examples have layers of chocolate and biscuit wrapped in super pape, shaped in the size of a cup that can tolerate hot liquid. So you can eat the cup after drinking your espresso.
The responsibility for post-consumer waste is tricky issue. Ultimately, you can produce the most recyclable/compostable material imaginable, but you still have to depend on consumers themselves to recycle/compost it. For this, consumers need to be educated. It’s an exciting time in the packaging world simply because there are new alternatives being developed all the time. It’s up to restaurants to utilize these advancements and make the changes known to their consumers.
— Ray Hatch is CEO of Quest Resource Holding Corporation. He brings over 25 years of experience in both the waste management and food services industries with companies that generated over a billion dollars in revenue. Previously, Hatch served as president of Merchants Market Group, an international food service distribution company. He also served in various executive roles with Oakleaf Waste Management, a provider of waste outsourcing that was acquired by Waste Management.