Restaurants can curb our appetite for plastics

Posted 12/31/69

Picture a garbage truck dumping a load of plastic trash into the ocean. Now imagine that happening once every minute for an entire year. That's how much plastic waste enters the oceans …

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Restaurants can curb our appetite for plastics


Picture a garbage truck dumping a load of plastic trash into the ocean. Now imagine that happening once every minute for an entire year. That's how much plastic waste enters the oceans annually. 

While you're envisioning the briny deep, consider this: Takeout food and drink containers, including tiny fragments of them, comprise a staggering 44 percent of plastic debris in the oceans. 

Most plastic food-service items—clamshells, cutlery, drinking and condiment cups, lids, straws and stirrers—are not recyclable. Of those that are, few actually become new cups or clamshells. Instead, they wind up in a landfill, an incinerator, or the environment. 

That's because there simply is no market for most post-consumer plastics. 

Unlike aluminum and glass, which can be recycled by the batch, plastic containers can't all be melted down together. They're made of different resins with different additives using different processes to give them specific properties. Some are clear and some have colors. And containers are used for different purposes. Does mayonnaise in a jar made from plastic that previously held motor oil sound appetizing? 

All this variation makes plastic containers expensive and impractical to sort. It's cheaper for manufacturers to use brand-new plastic. 

Besides, remember "Reduce, reuse, recycle"?  Recycling was meant to be the option of last resort, not the first. 

But for decades, the plastics industry has funded misleading PR campaigns to lull us into believing that plastics recycling is working. In actuality, our annual recycling rate for post-consumer plastic waste has never reached double digits—and in 2021 actually dropped to an anemic five to six percent

Rather than struggling to cope with ever-increasing mountains of stuff, we need to reduce the amount of single-use disposables we make in the first place. There is strong public support for such a move: According to a nationwide poll conducted in February, 81 percent of U.S. voters support action to reduce single-use plastic. 


While addressing the plastic pollution crisis will involve every sector of the economy, the food service industry can play a leading role. 

Anyone in the business of serving food—bar and restaurant owners, caterers, cafeteria managers, even food truck owners—can take steps to reduce their operation's plastic footprint. Many such steps, like providing straws and condiment packets only on request, will also save money. 

Weaning a food establishment off plastic could seem daunting. 


Reusable takeout containers are key to slashing plastic. Eateries can provide branded reusables for a small discount or sell them, giving patrons a discount whenever they're used. Another option is to encourage customers to bring their own containers, again for a discount.

As for meals eaten on the premises, reusable dishware both increases customer satisfaction and builds brand loyalty. Switching to washable plates elevates the customer experience from eating to dining—and often sparks an uptick in business. 

For establishments without the capacity to wash dishes, third-party vendors that supply, collect, wash and distribute dishware and reusable takeout containers are springing up around the country. The cost of outside dishwashing services is competitive with disposables, and patron satisfaction is high. 

Plant-based disposables

But for some establishments, reusables simply aren't a realistic option. And while plant-based alternatives are now available, not all live up to their green marketing claims. 

Many fiber-based products are coated with PFAS, the toxic "forever chemicals," to create a barrier against moisture and grease. And many bioplastics contain chemical additives or are combined with plastic made from petrochemicals. Some bio-based plastics are not truly compostable, even in industrial-scale composting facilities. 

Restaurateurs can cut through the hype by seeking out products certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, a science-driven nonprofit that tests packaging and disposables. BPI certification ensures that products are truly compostable and leave no plastic or toxic residues in the soil.

Strength in numbers

The food service industry is vast and wields immense purchasing power. If every eating establishment in the U.S. switched just 10 percent of its procurement to reusables, manufacturers would develop more sustainable products to meet the demand. 

The world's plastic pollution crisis is the result of a design flaw. We've been using the wrong materials for short-lived products. The food service industry is ideally situated to jumpstart a shift to a more rational course. 

Beyond Plastics, sustainability, plastic, restaurants


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