By the first Earth Day, in 1970, the phrase Reduce, Reduce, Recycle was a universal mantra. Fifty years later, recycle bins sit alongside trash bins in public parks and streets, airports, restaurants and coffee bars, sports arenas, and even at individual desks in workplaces. Despite decades of public education campaigns, consumers don’t recycle and, when they deposit disposable items into bins, they don’t sort their trash accurately. This twin phenomenon – low recycling rates and high rates of contamination – is common throughout most of the world.
In countries with infrastructure to sort and sell waste streams, most are incinerated because only a few waste streams – principally aluminum and cardboard – have a secondary market to actually complete the recycling process and manufacture products made of ‘recycled’ materials. We simply use too many disposable plastic, paper, glass, and mixed resin products to recycle them and we don’t effectively reduce or reuse in volumes that matter. Greenpeace (2020) demonstrated that products earmarked for recycling mostly end up in landfills anyway.
More and more people recognize that we need to significantly move away from disposables toward durable products wherever we can to reverse the steady increase of unusable trash that pollutes oceans, lakes, and our food chain.
But what about Covid-19 and the potential for virus transmission? The global lockdown has had the effect of rolling back plastic bag bans and increasing the percentage of single-use disposables deployed in the delivery of food. In the case of restaurants trying to survive, the use of disposables for takeout is understandable, but is single-use plastic or paper safer than cloth bags or reusable food tins? The evidence just isn’t there. If properly washed at hygienic temperatures, reusable plates, utensils, cups, and bags or containers are safe unless touched by someone who hasn’t washed their hands and is infected – a problem that must be guarded against under any circumstances. If anything, the novel coronavirus pandemic is going to teach humanity about the need for more frequent and effective hand washing and other important practices, including preventing cross-contamination. If restaurant operators move to less self-service options and more pre-plated or pre-packaged options, there’s no reason why environmental values have to be discarded in the process since they are not inherently in conflict with safety.
The restaurant industry has been quick to react to the coronavirus pandemic in a variety of ways, and the shift to take-out and delivery has understandably spurred quite a bit of change in how food is packaged and consumed. The industry has already seen changes in the amount of total disposable packaging being used, and therefore, the overall environmental impact of that packaging. The fast-casual sector is well positioned for this shift in business models, but what will it mean for reusable containers in this space? Restaurants of all types have a collective responsibility to avoid an increase in environmental impact as business models evolve out of this pandemic, and innovation in reusable packaging will be a primary driver to mitigating the impact. At one end of the spectrum, full-service establishments have long been trusted to provide a safe experience by using dishwashers and reusable serve ware; at the other end of spectrum, the fast food industry has long been trusted to provide food-safe disposable take away packaging. The fast-casual space sits right in the middle and is therefore uniquely positioned to provide the best of both worlds. What you will find in the pages to follow are some excellent examples of how a reusable model can fit in this space. It will be up to brands to determine how to lean into this innovation considering their own individual models and priorities.
Municipalities generally bear the cost of public refuse and recycling collection, litter abatement, and storm drain maintenance. In some states they are held financially accountable to waste reduction and stormwater cleanliness goals. Local businesses districts spend millions annually to keep streets clear of disposable foodware. Tourism boards, local park districts, and chambers of commerce deal with litter clean up issues and complaints. Clean Water Action’s bay area street litter survey found that ⅔ of street litter is food packaging. As a result of a lack of state and federal action, many municipalities are adopting local policies to reduce plastic disposable foodware. Berkeley’s 2019 Single Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance is the first of its kind to focus on reducing disposable foodware rather than trying to make it more recyclable or compostable. This ordinance places a $0.25 charge on all disposable cups (hot and cold) and requires food eaten on site to be served on durable reusable foodware. In addition, the Ecology Center who led the effort to pass this ordinance, has piloted Vessel, a reusable sanitized cup service, at 12 Berkeley cafes and restaurants. The goal is to learn what it might look like to have a franchised city-wide mandatory reusable service at every food vendor who offers disposables.
Led by The Lexicon, a team of professionals representing different parts of the restaurant industry were convened in October 2019. We shared a goal to address the overuse of disposable food service options, on a pre-competitive basis, over a six-month period. We interviewed all the companies providing some reusable solution that we could find and drew up a list of criteria for evaluating them. Our needs and situations vary, though: some restaurant operators have onsite dishwashing capabilities, others do not; customers primarily eat-in at some locations, or they take-out; the financial arrangements differ markedly. Wearing all of these hats, we identified a list of criteria that we hope is exhaustive, knowing that different users of this information would be concerned about all or a specific subset of these concerns. Feel free to use these as guidance, look at the companies’ responses, and check them against your current concerns. Keep in mind that the vendor companies are generally new companies (10 years old or less) and very entrepreneurial. What’s true today could be outdated tomorrow. Our hope is that this list of criteria and other operational considerations will be a helpful framework as you consider what’s important to your guests and clients.