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.