Archive for the ‘Packaging’ Category

Reusable Takeout

Author: Paul

Reusable Takeout ContainerA Calgary man named K.B. Lee recently launched an interesting website called TakeOutWithout.com. The site is creating a campaign to encourage diners and restaurants alike to reduce the amount of packaging they use in when ordering takeout.

TOWO asks people to reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging they take when getting takeout (think a stack of napkins), bring their own reusable containers, and change their dining habits. I assume the last one means eating out less, which since we’re in the foodservice business I’ll take to mean dine in rather than not eating out at all…

Though his idea nothing new, I like the concept – particularly the idea of bringing your own takeout container. This is great idea if someone is dining out, (or dining in rather) and has some leftovers they want to take home. If they have their own container for their own leftovers, it can be as big or dirty or cumbersome as they are willing to deal with. The restaurant never has to touch the thing. I’ve seen this done a lot by environmentally minded customers, but the whole concept relies solely on the customers. I would like to see some restaurants (particularly those that tend to have a lot of leftovers) encouraging their customers to bring their own containers for leftovers. Maybe offer them a coupon for a free scoop of ice cream for using their own containers. It’s a loss for the restaurant in terms of takeout containers saved versus ice cream lost, but it brings them back – maybe again and again.

One of the more dicey issues is using outside containers for the takeout food itself. A lot of restaurant owners don’t want outside containers in their kitchen, and for good reason. If the containers were not washed in a commercial dishwasher (which they weren’t) it’s a health code violation, and even if they were they would be contaminated by the time the container makes it back to the kitchen. The simple solution to this is to run the customer’s container through the dishwasher. Inevitably the dishwasher will already be running with other items so adding a piece of Tupperware doesn’t add any major labor to the process. Of course, this may take a little longer, but any customer that is willing to bring their own containers for takeout will be more than happy to wait an extra minute or two if you use their container.

I’ve also heard of restaurants plating the food on their own dishes then letting the customer transfer it to their own containers. This option is nice for the kitchen staff that doesn’t have to adapt to a countless variety of containers and avoids the health code issue, but does dirty an extra dish in addition to the difficulty of the customer transferring the food to their containers – more than likely in the entrance of the dining room.

Another option is to offer a reusable takeout container with a deposit. College campuses are starting to use reusable takeout containers, and it could work great for a lot of restaurant. Reusable containers and deposits won’t work for every takeout customer, but for regulars, office workers around the corner, or in campus situations (school or business) it is a great, sensible option.

Of course disposable containers are not going away, but sustainable restaurants should provide a greener option, and accommodate guests that wish to bring their own – maybe to go as far as to encourage and possibly compensate their guests for bringing containers from home for leftovers. It’s a small step, but they all add up.

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I’ve spoken with several people recently about the variety of biodegradable foodservice products on the market right now. Just a couple years ago there were just a small handful of relatively unobtainable products, but today the market is flooded with biodegradable packaging of every kind including the elusive biodegradable hot cup lid.

Choice is great, but the problem currently is the true “greenness” of these products, or at least some of these products. All the manufactures call their products biodegradable and tout them as sustainable, but what is sustainable when it comes to disposable products? The items are inherently unsustainable as they are usually single use items. This alone makes their sustainability label questionable, but disposable products are necessary in many circumstances. A recent study predicted the disposable foodservice market to reach $18 billion by 2013. So there is still a need for environmentally sustainable packaging. The big question that arises is what defines a disposable product as sustainable.

Is a corn based biodegradable cup more sustainable than a plastic one? What if the bio-cup is thrown in the landfill along with the plastic one, and degrades anaerobically releasing the greenhouse gas methane? At least the carbon is stored in the plastic cup, and pesticides, herbicides and diesel fuel were not used to grow its base material. The plastic cup could be recycled, but the vast majorities are not even accepted by recyclers. So which one is more sustainable?

Some research has been conducted on the subject and the results would probably surprise many people. A study by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research compared the environmental impact of traditional polyethylene plastic bags versus biodegradable bags available in France and Germany. The study calculated the impact of the raw material production process, transportation factors and recyclability of the products. The study concluded that the polyethylene bags have less of an impact on the environment than biodegradable bags and that bags made from recycled material have the smallest environmental impact of the three choices. It should be noted that the study presumed that all the bags would be incinerated at end-of-life rather than composting the biodegradable bag. Although the waste treatment equaled a small portion of the overall impact and composting would not have affected the results.

Despite the results of the IEER study, I don’t think we can currently rule out any option entirely, but we can move towards more recycled disposable packaging, packaging that is more recyclable and actually composting biodegradable products. As I mentioned, most cups along with straws, clamshells, anything that is #6, and most other disposable plastic foodservice items are technically recyclable, but usually not wanted by the recyclers. Buying recycled content products will help create a market demand for those currently unwanted plastics, which in turn will encourage the manufactures to create products that are more recyclable.

As for the biodegradable products, I think the consumer’s demand for reliable products will weed out the greenwashed products on the market, and create a need for some sort of reliable, biodegradable standard. Certification may not be necessary, but there does need to be some sort of universal, tested standard in order to legally sell their products.

There is currently one group in the US, the Biodegradable Products Institute that is certifying biodegradable foodservice products. The institute uses ISO and ASTD standards to test and qualify products. While the BPI is using quality standards as baseline for its certification standards, the group has come under some criticism from people in the biodegradable products industry because the group is made up of several companies in the industry itself. Certifiers certifying themselves (and others).

In addition to standards, the US needs to create an infrastructure of commercial composting facilities across the country to process the nation’s organic matter, including biodegradable disposables. There is no reason our landfills should be a quarter full of food waste.

Finally, I don’t think corn, palm or even sugar cane is the answer to our biodegradable product needs. Corn is just too energy and chemically intensive, and without the current subsidies corn-based PLA products would be financially unreasonable. Palm plantations are taking over critical tropical rainforest areas and sugar cane while one of the current best options, does have issues of its own, namely labor problems. Potatoes and sugar beets are currently a good options being that they are often grown in the US, and at least to my knowledge use less chemicals than corn. The manufactures need to stop relying on subsidized commodities and develop products made from drought and pest hardy plants that can be grown sustainably. In the mean time, it is the restaurant industry’s job to be critical of disposable products, ask questions of the manufactures and be thrifty in our use of them.

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