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Disposable to Compostable: Restaurants Embrace Eco-Friendly Packaging

Is Compostable Packaging The Future Of Takeout Service?

When restaurant dining rooms closed earlier this year, many owners had to rely on takeout and delivery orders as their primary source of income. If you’ve found yourself ordering more takeout than usual this year, you’re not alone. Online ordering service Grubhub reported a 35% increase in users at the end of their second quarter compared to the same time last year. 

Takeout meals have provided the restaurant industry with a much-needed financial lifeline, but the rising trend has also sparked an exponential increase in the use of disposable containers and utensils, many of them plastic. These disposable containers often end up in landfills where they emit harmful greenhouse gases. 

Although many restaurant owners want to do their part to reduce waste and cut down on single-use service items, the current COVID-19 health crisis is impeding those good intentions. Current CDC guidelines recommend the use of disposable food service items to minimize the risk of disease transmission, prompting many restaurants to employ disposable cups, plates, and utensils even in their recently reopened indoor dining rooms.

Evan Chismark, general manager of Ranch Camp in Vermont, says that although his restaurant is focused on sustainability, “we’ve pivoted to items that are prepackaged and plastic because it’s what the customer demands. But putting all that stuff into the waste stream is super painful.”

According to Green Matters, plastics pollution has hit an all-time high in recent years. In an attempt to combat this problem, some restaurant owners have switched to compostable packaging made from plants such as sugarcane, corn, or bamboo. Although this trend precedes the pandemic – the city of Seattle already required all food service vendors to use compostable or recyclable packaging – the current health crisis has prompted more establishments to jump on the bandwagon.

But even though compostable packaging seems like an eco-friendly choice, there are some drawbacks. Elijah Butterfield of the Center for Environmental Health notes that compostable packaging is likely to contain PFAS, a class of chemicals linked to several health problems including cancer and thyroid hormone disruption. Fast-casual chains Sweetgreen and Chipotle have committed to phasing out packaging that contains PFAS by the end of 2020, and perhaps others will follow suit. 

Chemicals aside, if compostable packaging isn’t disposed of properly it can end up in landfills where it doesn’t break down. “Compostable containers are designed to go into a composting system,” explains Michael Oshman, founder of the Green Restaurant Association. “If they go into the recycling bin, then they actually contaminate the recycling stream because they don’t belong there. Are compostables better than polystyrene? Sure, but it’s still not functioning the way it’s supposed to if there isn’t a composting system to support it.” According to Eater, only a small portion of the 4,000 composting facilities in the U.S. have the ability to process compostable packaging. 

Given the limitations of compostable packaging, some restaurant owners are incorporating reusable materials into their takeout container roster. Washington D.C. eatery Rose’s Luxury, which started ‘Rose’s at Home,’ a delivery and in-home catering service, during the pandemic, recently switched from cardboard boxes to reusable nylon bags. The restaurant includes a note with all orders that encourages customers to reuse the packaging. Another D.C. spot, Jaleo, uses metal pans to transport their paella to-go. And on the West Coast, Portland, Washington café Tiny Moreso uses glass jars for takeout beverages. 

But it’s not just restaurant owners who are attempting to implement eco-friendly takeout solutions. Go Box PDX, another Portland-based company, developed a low-waste takeout system with reusable containers and cups. In an attempt to address the current health concerns over reusable food service items, the company has outlined its safety procedures on their website. “Reusables are safe, even in the age of COVID-19,” the company says, “as long as sanitation procedures are upheld.”

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