Your to-go packaging says a lot about you: Before a customer even sets foot in your restaurant, your packaging immediately communicates messages about not only your brand identity but also about how much you value customer safety, the environment and the quality of your off-premise food. Now that we’re emerging from the pandemic, more operators are picking up where they left off with innovating the packaging and cutlery they include with their off-premise meals. Shake Shack, for one, recently announced it is testing sustainable cutlery and straws from AirCarbon, which includes no synthetic plastics or glues in its products, doesn’t need food crops in its production process, and produces items that are home-compostable, soil-degradable and ocean-friendly. Edible packaging is on the rise too, with materials like mushrooms being fashioned into bowls and seaweed being tested as a plastic-like but biodegradable alternative to traditional plastic cutlery. If you’re currently evaluating the carbon footprint of your menu, consider the entire carbon footprint of the meals you provide (including the containers surrounding them). Of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced around the world each year, only 14 percent is recycled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Off-premise dining isn’t showing signs of slowing down, and in the months and years ahead, the way you present your food for consumption off-site is likely to play an increasingly important role in how customers perceive your business.
Restaurants have touted their environmentally friendly practices to consumers for some time – offering local produce, minimizing their waste and changing up their to-go packaging. In fact, the National Restaurant Association reported that back in 2018, more than half of consumers said they would be likely to choose a restaurant based on its eco-friendly practices, such as water conservation and recycling. But some restaurants are now raising their game a step higher in an effort to appeal to guests who are passionate about minimizing their impact on the environment. The fast-casual brand Just Salad announced recently that it would be launching a “climatarian” menu available to customers who order via its web and digital channels. The Spoon reports that guests can select a dish based on its carbon footprint or, in the case of meat lovers, opt for a “conscientious carnivores” dish. Guests will be able to determine the environmental impact of their build-your-own salad offerings too. Expect to see more restaurants drill down on – and promote – details about their sustainability efforts in such ways. According to research from IRI and NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, Millennial consumers are most likely to purchase products marketed as “sustainable” – these items are popular across demographics as well – and this trend has held true throughout the pandemic. At the same time, consumer expectations are rising when it comes to the craveability of the eco-friendly foods they buy. Darren Seifer of NPD Group said recently that the food industry needs to maintain and market the taste, health benefits and environmental impact of its offerings to continue to draw eco-conscious consumers.
Reusables are on the rise, if the latest news from McDonald’s and Starbucks is any indication. The brands are backing a pilot program called the NextGen Cup Challenge, which involves developing reusable plastic cups with trackable QR codes or RFID chips. Bloomberg reports that the cups are intended to be returned by customers, cleaned and then reused in an effort to take a large bite out of the billions of plastic-lined paper cups discarded by customers of the two brands each year. Is there opportunity for returnable, reusable cups, plates and utensils in your operation? A number of brands – large and small – are providing models for how it can be done. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the 40-unit fast-casual brand Just Salad has offered a reusable bowl program for close to 15 years – guests who choose their reusable bowls get a free topping on their salad each time. (The brand recently launched a sustainability initiative that rivals those of much larger brands.) It remains to be seen if such incentives will become necessary as restaurants offer more reusable items. Other chains are taking different approaches: The Counter reports that the fast-casual brand Dig, which estimates that 80 percent of its business is take-away, recently launched a program called Canteen. Enrolled guests install a smartphone app and pay $3 each month for a hard reusable bowl that they can return to Dig for washing (and subsequent refilling).
Has your restaurant resolved to use less plastic in 2020? It seems everyone has some plastic guilt nowadays – and there are businesses cropping up to help operators replace plastic and also find new uses for the plastic that already exists. Take Riegel Linen, which was among eight companies to win Restaurant Technology News’s “Restaurateurs’ Choice Award for Environmental Good” competition. The company, which makes linens for a range of industries, found a way to integrate leftover plastic bottles into its textiles. Riegel Linen collects, sorts and inspects plastic bottles, then sterilizes and dries them before crushing them into chips, Restaurant Technology News reports. Once melted down, the material is made into a new fiber that Riegel Linen uses to make napkins and tablecloths. Its RieNu napkins are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyester.
As consumers have demanded packaging that’s friendlier to the environment, operators have quickly replaced plastic straws with paper alternatives, and plastic containers with packaging containing natural materials. But as an investigation by the New Food Economy found recently, the fiber bowls that are widely used in place of plastic contain chemicals known as PFAS that don’t biodegrade and aren’t really compostable, despite being labeled as such. On the contrary, they may actually be making compost more toxic. San Francisco is the first city to ban the bowls, effective in January, and to date, there are no known commercially viable alternatives according to the report. In the meantime, Eater reports that after McDonald’s in the U.K. and Ireland phased out plastic straws in favor of recyclable paper ones that generated customer complaints, the brand introduced a thicker paper straw to replace the first solution. But new reports indicate it is non-recyclable. So what is a restaurant brand to do to become more eco-friendly? Modern Restaurant Management advises operators to first understand the terminology. The term “biodegradable,” for example, sounds eco-friendly but is only indicative of a product that will decompose – and that could take several hundred years. Working with organizations that research and certify environmentally friendly options can help too. Modern Restaurant Management suggests Green Seal, an environmental standard development organization that tests and certifies products, services and venues like restaurants and hotels, then awards certification based on performance, health and sustainability criteria.
Looking for alternatives to plastic for off-premise food packaging? Increasingly, it’s coming from plants. Corn is currently being used for plastic alternatives ranging from straws to containers, but according to a report in Scientific American, the disposal of the material poses challenges, along with leaving an environmental footprint. It is compostable and not recyclable, so if not sent to an industrial facility where it can biodegrade, the process can take between 100 and 1000 years (versus just a few months). Still, other promising and more easily biodegradable plant-based plastics are being developed from materials ranging from cactus to algae. Some are even designed to eliminate waste altogether. The Spoon reports that the startup Decomer is developing a plant-based capsule containing honey. It can dissolve in coffee, tea, or other liquids at a wide range of temperatures.
At a time when even recyclable plastic often ends up in landfills or oceans, the presence of single-use plastic is still widespread in restaurants, most noticeably in the delivery space. The parent of Zume Pizza, the automated pizza delivery company that won accolades for developing a compostable, biodegradable, molded fiber “pizza pod” for shepherding pies to customers, is now helping other companies develop non-plastic packaging alternatives. According to a Forbes report, the company recently launched a new venture to develop plant-based packaging that is designed to have the performance qualities of plastic (and is priced to compete with plastic when used at scale). The packaging, a compostable blend of sugarcane fiber, bamboo, wood pulp and wheat straw, is classified as Type 4 Molded Fiber, the highest grade of molded fiber packaging.