Better To-Go Packaging For Environmentally Conscious Restauranteurs

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QUESTION FROM: Camille in CAN

“As you know, we’re opening a small taco bar and currently in the process of trying to find take out packaging... It’s proving to be incredibly difficult to find sustainable craft clam shell boxes for less then $1.  I would prefer to wrap them but am worried about how they will travel in delivery. 

Also, I’d like to find a greener alternative to plastic beverage cups. Although the guests find them convenient (we use the Solo clear ones with lids) they are mostly used by staff and most of the time they use more than one per day because I throw them out if they leave them somewhere they’re not supposed to. Thinking about a paper cup made from recycled paper and then branding the cup with a stamp (using green ink) or a sticker with our name and logo.

Any suggestions?”



HH ANSWER:

I often get questions from operators looking for minimal and/or recyclable packaging options (including straws and utensils) for delivery & to-go orders or leftovers…and the sheer volume of almost identical questions has caused me to consider an efficient solution that’s a little outside the box.

Before I get into better togo container options, let me first say how nice it is to see a steady increase of restaurant owners focusing on how they can be more mindful when it comes to limiting waste and going green(er). Guests are noticing AND being more vocal in expressing their appreciation when a business uses sustainable packaging... and not just those hailing from CA.  Other states have been joining the effort to aggressively support more environmentally friendly initiatives by instituting state-wide bans on single use plastic bags as well.

New York and, just this past week, Pennsylvania have both proposed initiatives to follow in the footsteps of California, Hawaii and most recently Main who has now banned the use of single use plastic bags. 

New Jersey is aiming to take their environmental responsibility initiative a step further: 

“Bill (S2776) calls for bans on single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers. It also places a 10-cent fee on paper bags. But it soon may go even further. State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, the head of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he will push for the bill, which he sponsored, to be amended to include a ban on paper bags, as well....’No bags whatsoever’, Smith said. ‘No single-use plastic, no paper’.”

You can see it outside the U.S. as well. African countries like Tanzania have passed legislation to ban single use plastic straws this year and Dunkin’ Donuts (excuse me...”Dunkin’) is slated to ditch their foam cups later this year and Starbucks will be ditching the straw altogether (by elongating the lid top drinking spout) by 2021.

So while sustainability is becoming more and more of a guest expectation than an interest, those who don’t start re-thinking their packaging and waste plan may soon be losing significant market share. 

Look, everyone realizes that NOTHING is going to travel as well in a bag or container as well as it does on a plate that leaves the line and goes straight to the table…but the majority of restaurants are using containers and bags that are causing more unwanted waste than necessary - and the cost to do better doesn’t have to be significant.

Although styrofoam clamshells, clear Solo (or Dart) cups, side cups / souffle cups with lids and plastic to-go bags have long been the industry norm - the past 10-15 years have seen an increase in the black bottomed - clear lid to-gos that guests seem to appreciate more not only for their more secure-fitting lids but also because they’re “somewhat re-useable*” and free from the dangerous chemicals prop65 protects Californians from..

*Plastic takeout containers are generally designed for one-time use and disposal. Polypropylene containers are dishwasher-safe, and can be reused by the consumer for as long as 6 months or more in some cases but generally not considered safe for use in microwave ovens…and worse, they are often only used once before being discarded.

As Matthew Naitove states in a recent Plastics Technology article: “I know many people agree with me that these “one-way” plastic containers are way too good to throw out after a single use. They’re not currently under threat in New York State, but they could be elsewhere, or even here in the future.”

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The same holds true for straws now as well. More and more (but not all) guests notice and appreciate when a restaurant or bar adopts the use of paper cups and straws or bamboo straws….or, at least, doesn’t automatically put a straw in a beverage that doesn’t get a fruit garnish or require stirring.  

In fact, there has been a recent surge in restaurants & cafes that provide a significant discount (up to 20%) off drinks for those who supply their own glass, cup or travel mug. And based on social media posts…I’d say those initiatives are being well received.

Plastic Technology's Matthew Naitove Proves Re-Use Is Well-Received.

Plastic Technology's Matthew Naitove Proves Re-Use Is Well-Received.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to adopt a “no single use cups” policy for your staff as a start...or stock up on some CAMBRO 10oz or 22oz tumblers (kid’s lids fit on the 10oz). Consider also implementing a discount for your own guests who bring in their own to-go cups. Some might argue that it’s a lost advertising opportunity if you can afford to buy cups stamped or sticker with your name and/or logo…but I’d disagree. In some instances (like this) I think you’d get much more mileage out of being your brand instead of merchandising it.

But as bad as cups and straws are for our oceans, coastlines and sea-life; styrofoam and the even more popular black and clear plastic to-go containers make up a majority of restaurant waste not being composted or recycled.

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Now if you’re looking specifically for paper products, be prepared to spend more with no real measurable ROI there. That’s not to say your overall brand equity won’t increase - it’s just that it’s likely going to be more difficult to measure.

Togos like these are available on Amazon through the below affiliate link for about .49/ea. and should fit your bill:

Building in the cost for biodegradable boxes, straws and cups at the time of budgeting makes for a much easier transition than shifting mid-year but you can start researching skus now for everything from compostable bags and straws to recyclable bags and/or boxes. Adjusting prices slightly for a separate TakeOut / Delivery menu might also prove helpful when trying to offset not only better togo containers but also in offsetting delivery service fees.

Just keep in mind that most municipalities don’t have facilities that can keep up with the existing recycling and composting demands anyway...so the compostable/recycling items you choose may still end up sitting in a landfill somewhere since “compostable materials” generally have to be in a “compostable environment” for them to break down.

If you’re looking for the “best” togos at at the best value, here’s my “outside the box” idea or perhaps more accurately…my “call to action”: 

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I think we should follow the example set by grocery stores and not only offer a financial incentive for guests that opt for re-useable to-go bags, but also offer a financial incentive for guests who opt for re-useable to-go containers.

After working with an Indian client from Southeast Asia, I learned of the popular process of delivering food in re-usable containers to workers throughout India and that this was not an entirely new idea. It’s been done in India for ages. “Tiffin carriers or dabbas are a kind of lunch box used widely in Asia for tiffin meals. From South Asia they spread to India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, where they are now widely used.[1][2] They are also used extensively in Hungary, primarily to transport restaurant meals for consumption at home.

In the Indian city of Mumbai, there is a complex and efficient delivery system that regularly delivers hot lunches packed in dabbas to city office workers from their suburban homes or from a caterer. It uses delivery workers known as dabbawalas.”

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Although I think it’ll be some time before American ghost kitchens adopt a dabbawala or re-useable bento boxprogram... it doesn’t take much imagination to see the same system being eventually adopted.

In fact, one of Vancouver’s more environmentally conscious chefs, Chef Hunter Moyes, started the “Tiffin Project” in 2011: “I was unable, however, to find any up-to-date information on the Vancouver chapter, so cannot report on its status. (Its last tweet is dated 2015.) "Tiffin" refers to the stackable metal containers used as lunch boxes in India.”

While Chef Moyes’ success may have been limited, a recently passed law in California now permits diners bringing (and restaurants to fill) their own to-go containers seem to have encouraged additional initiatives like the one at The University of California Merced.

“The University of California Merced campus is taking a reuse approach for to-go food containers from the dining halls, previously one of its biggest sources of waste.

Around a third of campus meals, about 350,000 are taken to-go every year. The difference now is that students take them in reusable containers that are returned, washed, and used again.

In 2010, UC Merced ran a pilot program to see how a reusable container system could work, whether students would be interested at all, and what challenges might arise. The problem wasn’t getting people to use the system — students liked the idea and adopted it quickly.

“The biggest issue was, how do we collect this many containers,” said Julie Sagusay, food services manager at UC Merced.”

-Andy Murdock | University of California


Packaging accounts for nearly 30 percent of all waste generated across the country according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and this doesn’t include other single-use items like disposable plates and utensils, diapers, junk mail, and paper towels. It piles up in our landfills, while manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of all of this stuff — often used for mere seconds — creates big greenhouse gas emissions.

Approximately twenty five percent (25%) of guests in this $863billion industry take food to-go.

At 1.5 containers per guest, that comes out to an estimated 600+Million to go containers each year and over 100 Billion to go bags.

78 million metric tons of plastic packaging produced globally each year and only fourteen percent of it is actually recycled. Many will argue that most of that waste is coming from oversees countries like China but considering the rise of third party food delivery services and the fast growing $1.2B ghost kitchen market in our country, we can expect the number of to-go containers leaving restaurants and commissaries to to easily exceed 1 Billion in 2020.

Instead of food and beverage outlets trying to find more efficient ways to clean hundreds of thousands of to-go containers (as seems to be the hurdle at The University Of California Merced)  or asking students and researchers to devise new strains of materials from which to 3D print straws and food containers (as they are doing at Swedish research institutes RISE and Tomorrow Machine, New York’s Pratt Institute and Harvard’s Wyss Institute) I propose we ask each individual diner to clean and carry their own….and then reward them for doing just that.

After all, compostable containers require placement in compost piles that reach approximately 138 degrees - and right now, most of those tested are being stuffed into general waste bins or worse - ending up in our waterways, and thus prevents the breakdown from ever occurring or taking decades to do so.

So we need not only new materials but also social adjustment to make the biggest impact.

Until then, finding a more sustainable, compact alternative (glass containers tend to be a bit heavy/clunky) that can be easily cleaned and taken along with you whenever you go out to eat (just as you would take a reusable shopping bag with you whenever you’re going to the grocery store) might just be the best alternative right now.

I realize this could prove to be a daunting task…so I did some of the legwork for you.

Check out my affiliate link for this set of re-usable, collapsable and brandable containers available on Amazon: 

Matthew Naitove of Plastics Technology discusses the fast casual restaurant Just Salad.

“As part of its campaign to reduce plastic waste, it just introduced a reusable salad bowl for kids. Parents are encouraged to bring the dishwasher-safe polypropylene bowls with them on return visits to Just Salad restaurants. That is expected to save 100,000 lb of plastic in 2019. The reusable kids’ bowl expands on the company’s existing reusable bowl program—including a “VIP Black Bowl that allows customers to skip to the head of the line—which has been recognized by the EPA with a WasteWise award and is ‘the only restaurant reusable program approved by the New York City Dept. of Health,’ according to Just Salad.”

Let’s get the ball rolling a little faster and start incentivizing diners (as many supermarkets incentivize their shoppers) for bringing in their own to-go containers for leftovers or take-away.

Consider also the benefit of branding and selling re-useable containers as you do to-go bags for dine-in guests who bring and use their own containers.

I love my oversized insulated Wegmans shopping bags and whenever I take them with me to pull double duty as a pool, beach or pot-luck bag - I can’t help but think of the advertising mileage a restaurant could be getting out of a merch move like that.

Consider the advertising and merchandising opportunities that branding better to-go packaging offers.

Consider the advertising and merchandising opportunities that branding better to-go packaging offers.

A discount of .25¢ - $1.00 for each to-go container used for leftovers would give your brand equity an immeasurable boost while contributing positively.

The actual amount of the discount is less important than simply making it a line item on a check to facilitate the realization among guests that most of us have empty containers sitting at home can can be used for this very purpose.

Imagine the good-will garnered by you supporting the drastic reduction of your own restaurant’s waste and encouraging your guests to help limit waste created by your neighboring restaurants

I’d be surprised if the health department had a problem with restaurants handling someone else’s clean to go containers when they’re already handling the mess we’re leaving on our plates now.