6 Tips to Make the Switch to Sustainable To-Go Containers Painless

6 Tips to Make the Switch to Sustainable To-Go Containers Painless

Use of to-go food containers surged during the pandemic’s delivery boom. While the public, and regulators, focused on curbing Covid-19 transmission, efforts to reduce single-use plastics were put on the backburner. 

But now, eco-packaging is back on the agenda, and restaurants are confronted with a tough choice – pay the cost to go sustainable or lose business. 

To successfully navigate towards a healthy planet, while maintaining a healthy business, restaurant operators must understand the alternatives and start experimenting with sustainable to-go packaging.

The Problem with Plastic Takeout Containers

Carry-out and delivery orders grew by over 130% during the pandemic, causing the use of to-go containers to surge to the point of a packaging shortage. These plastic to-go containers, although convenient, take a toll on our health. 

The plastic containers themselves, and their linings, contain hazardous chemicals that cause a variety of health and birth complications. Even those marked BPA free leach hormones when in contact with food or subjected to changes in temperature.

The environmental impact is equally daunting. More than 180 billion single use takeout containers are thrown away in the US every year, and recycling is not a solution.

A UN funded study estimated that barely 10% of plastic packaging is recycled effectively and more than 70% reaches landfills and nature.

Polystyrene foam, commonly used in clamshell food packaging, is one of the worst. It takes at least 500 years to decompose and cannot be fully recycled.

Everyone Wants Eco To-Go Food Containers

Demand for sustainable to-go containers goes hand-in-hand with trends to reduce food waste and shift to plant based and clean-label products. It is yet another aspect of the public’s rising aspiration for personal and planetary health. 

The #CutOutCutlery movement, for example, convinced major 3rd party delivery apps like Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub and DoorDash to make ‘no utensils or napkins’ the default delivery option. Diners, it turns out, are happy to use their own cutlery at home or the office, while restaurants save money. 

Lawmakers are not far behind. California is in the final stages of legislation to make non-essential single use utensils available only ‘upon request’ by customers. Washington state already passed similar legislation and will be banning foam clamshell to-go containers as of June 2023.

Balancing Cost and Sustainability

The pressure is now on restaurants to find takeout containers that are both eco-friendly and cost effective. But what is eco-friendly really? 

Recycling plastics is not the solution. Most plastic in recycle bins ends up being burnt into the atmosphere, or dumped in landfills and the ocean. And TFPP containers, that have 40% less plastic than standard polypropylene ones, are only a halfway step.

The alternatives are compostable or biodegradable (PLA) food containers. However, although made from plants, like corn, bamboo or beets, they are not as easy to process as the terminology suggests and contain hazardous chemicals

In fact, many composting facilities do not accept them anymore and the overall environmental impact of creating and processing a compostable to-go container could be worse than a recyclable plastic one. 

Neither option is getting cheaper. The cost of plastic to-go packaging has increased steeply during the pandemic. High demand and supply chain shortages are still causing fluctuations in prices, sometimes as much as 30% in the span of a week, and plastic taxes are piling up. On the other hand, compostable alternatives cost between 35% to 100% more. 

Legislation is helping restaurants balance the cost of compostable options. In Berkley, CA, all to-go items must be certified compostable and a 25 cents fee is added by law to all to-go cups. This fee is kept by the restaurant to cover the cost.

The good news is that most customers are understanding and willing to pay a bit more for the more sustainable option, they even expect to.

Innovative To-Go Packaging Alternatives

Most restaurants are experimenting with alternatives to single-use plastic. To meet this demand entrepreneurs are constantly coming up with new sustainable materials and business models. 

One designer created an algae based thin-film packaging suitable for dry foods. World Centric creates bamboo paper containers with bio-based linings suitable even for pizzas. VerTerra have taken sustainability one step further and use only fallen palm leaves to create cutlery. 

The ‘three R’s of sustainability’ are: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. So on top of reducing the use of plastic as much as possible, restaurants also have more options than ever before to reuse. 

DeliverZero helps NYC restaurants deliver food in plastic containers that can be reused 1,000 times. Just Salad are doing it by themselves and relaunched their BringBack Bowl pilot program. DispatchGoods offer diners in The Bay Area to choose reusable stainless-steel containers when ordering food from their partner restaurants. 

All of these business models handle the tracking, return and cleaning aspects of reusables.

6 Easy Steps to Reduce Your Plastic Footprint

Restaurant owners who take a sustainable approach to their to-go packaging will enjoy the loyalty of a new generation of consumers. They will also be well prepared for increasingly ‘green’ legislation. These 4 easy steps can make a big difference: 

  1. Reduce Plastic – Do whatever you can to simply use less unnecessary and single-use packaging. 
  2. Replace Plastic – Offer biodegradable to-go container alternatives at extra charge, or make everything compostable and factor that into your pricing. If price is still a problem consider less-plastic TFPP options. 
  3. Reuse – Teach and incentivize your clients to reuse. One way is offering a discount when customers bring their own reusable mug. Experiment with a reusable to-go container partner or create your own pilot program. 
  4. #CutOutCutlery – Demand that your 3rd party delivery app provide single-use cutlery only upon request, and do the same for pick-up.
  5. Consider aesthetics. The way your to-go container looks is equally important to the experience, especially to clients who eat directly out of the container. In this sense reusables have the most appeal.
  6. Maintain the dining experience. Continue to choose leak proof packaging that suits the foods you serve. Crunchy foods, for example, will require innovative ventilated containers.

Get Sustainable To-Go Containers from Cheetah

The Cheetah catalog has a variety of to-go containers that can reduce your restaurant’s plastic footprint. For example: 

  • Tiya containers – FDA approved TFPP with 40% less plastic. BPA free, Reusable & Recyclable.
  • Kari-Out – Compostable paper to-go packaging. 
  • World centric – Takeout packaging made from bamboo and unbleached plant fiber,  suitable for hot food and beverages. The cold food PLA plant based options are compostable. 

Sustainability is permeating every aspect of the foodservice industry. Keep an ear to the ground and follow the trends to see what’s new and applicable to your restaurant.

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