Restaurant Industry Faces Challenges with Plant-Based Packaging Shift

(Photo: World Centric's compostable PizzaRound. Credit: World Centric)

by | Mar 14, 2018

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restaurant industry plant-based food containers

(Photo: World Centric’s compostable PizzaRound. Credit: World Centric)

In order to help hit the zero-waste goal for the Super Bowl in Minneapolis this year, the NFL along with partners Aramark, PepsiCo, US Bank Stadium, and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority turned to compostables.

The stadium’s food and beverage service provider Aramark said that they had made more than 70 different products such as cups, trays, straws, and utensils compostable. In a first for the big game, attendees could purchase pre-packed peanuts in compostable bags. More than 91% of the trash generated during the big game was successfully recovered, and 29% got composted.

What happened at the Super Bowl is a reflection of a shift happening across the food service industry, especially at fast-casual restaurants. The National Restaurant Association reports that 72% of operators they surveyed buy at least some packaging and supplies that contain recyclable material. And 56% buy at least some certified as compostable.

“The trend is more of a movement now,” chef and World Pizza Champion Glenn Cybulski told Environmental Leader. “Restaurateurs, we’re becoming aware of how important it is to decrease our carbon footprint and make sure that we are using sustainable products. And that includes the containers that our food goes out in.”

However, as operators move away from single use petroleum-based utensils and containers, alternative products are presenting new challenges and opportunities.

Compostable Container Challenges

Expanded polystyrene foam is hard to beat. Just ask Dunkin’ Donuts. The Massachusetts-based chain began looking for a functional and affordable alternative to polystyrene cups in 2011. The phase-out in favor of double-walled paper cups finally started stateside this year, but the company says that foam cups won’t be completely eliminated from the global supply chain until 2020.

Compared to many alternatives, foam offers better insulating capacity and costs less, says Bryan Buffalo, senior vice president of the fast-casual chain Nature’s Table, which has around 75 locations nationwide. Foam also tends to weigh less, meaning lower freight costs, he told Environmental Leader.

“However, we’ve chosen to look beyond that and focus on something that is bigger than us,” Buffalo says. In February, Nature’s Table announced a partnership with compostable products company World Centric to introduce compostable bowls and lids at most of its locations. The family-owned franchise negotiated pricing for the products, and will be showcasing what Buffalo calls “a better, more durable, greener disposable container.”

Not all Nature’s Table locations have compost service, though. The restaurants aren’t alone in being underserved. The National Restaurant Association surveyed more than 500 restaurant owners and operators for the State of Restaurant Sustainability report published this year.

“One of the biggest challenges restaurants face in this area is the lack of a robust composting and recycling infrastructure nationwide for packaging,” an association spokesperson says.

Mark Marinozzi, vice president of PR and marketing at World Centric, points out that there is no consistent ordinance for composting across the United States. Even in states like California, where World Centric is based, there is local variability.

“You can have an area like San Francisco that’s extremely progressive, and literally drive 10 minutes and still see Styrofoam to-go containers,” Marinozzi told Environmental Leader.

The Case for Sustainable Food Containers

Every operator in the food industry is looking at costs down to the penny, says Cybulski. The chef predicts that the price of compostable products will continue to go down.

Recently he collaborated with World Centric to test the design of a new pizza carrier called the PizzaRound. This molded fiber product, made from 80% sugarcane waste or bagasse and 20% bamboo, eliminates the need for three pizza carrier components: tissues, liners to keep pizzas fresher and crisper, and plastic table tents so the boxes don’t cave in, Cybulski says. That’s three SKUs operators don’t have to order any more, he adds.

The design also means that pizzeria operators don’t need to fold them like they would traditional pizza boxes. These containers have slimmer profiles, Cybulski notes, cutting back on unusable space where boxes normally would get stacked.

Plus, lack of local compost service isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for containers like the PizzaRound. “Even if it goes into the landfill, you are using half the energy that it takes to produce a traditional pizza box,” Marinozzi argues. “You’re not cutting down virgin trees or reusing tree material that requires a de-inking process and a lot of water.”

Other factors make plant-based containers an attractive option. More than 100 cities and counties in the US have already banned polystyrene, Marinozzi points out. Just this week, the Baltimore City Council passed a bill banning plastic foam containers for carry-out food and drinks. Restaurants and vendors have 18 months to comply.

The pressure is on restaurants and food service stakeholders to switch, Marinozzi says. And much of that influence is coming from customers.

“Our research has brought us to the conclusion that over two-thirds of consumers are looking for sustainable practices and products,” says Marinozzi. “They are very keen to support organizations that use plant-based containers.”

Bryan Buffalo says that he and his colleagues at Nature’s Table have noticed an uptick in brands committing to greener disposable initiatives, and more manufacturers working on producing packaging at reasonable prices.

“This is certainly the wave of the future,” he says. “It has to be.”

The 3rd Annual Environmental Leader & Energy Manager Conference takes place May 15 – 17, 2018 in Denver. Learn more here.

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