Published 2 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Anastasia Khvaleva/Pexels
Any product designed to be used for a matter of minutes and then thrown away is not a sustainable option – regardless of whether it’s made from plastic, paper, metal or plants. Businesses and the environment will reap undeniable benefits as the new reuse economy for food service gains steam.
This week, Upstream released Reuse
a report that shows how a new reuse economy is emerging to replace the use of
single-use products in food service. The key findings in the
report draw from life-cycle
studies that compare the environmental impacts of disposables versus reusables,
and project the potential cost savings to business and local government from
transitioning to a new reuse economy.
Today, much of institutional and fast-casual dining – and virtually all takeout
and delivery, which has skyrocketed since the onset of
– uses disposable foodware. Nearly 1 trillion disposable takeout containers,
bags, boxes, condiment packets, plastic utensils, napkins cold and hot cups and
lids are used each year in the United States — costing restaurants and
food-service businesses $24 billion per year to purchase, and costing
businesses and city governments $6 billion a year in solid-waste management
The environmental impacts of single-use plastic
are well-documented; so, those costs can be added to the bill, as well. But, as
the report points out, single-use plastics are only part of the problem —
single-use paper products, for example, fuel deforestation, soil erosion and
water pollution (and paper-based foodware is often coated with chemicals and
produces greater GHG emissions over its lifecycle than comparable plastic
products). Any product designed to be used for a matter of minutes and then
thrown away is not a sustainable option, regardless of whether it’s made from
plastic, paper, metal or plants. “Single-use” as an idea is where the problem
More and better recycling would help, but the state of our
alone means we’re light years away from that being an effective, scaled
solution. And compostable food serviceware (if composted) typically results in
higher environmental impacts when compared to other food serviceware that is
non-compostable — even if that other food serviceware is landfilled — according
to the report.
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Bottom line: We can’t recycle or compost our way out of the environmental
impacts of our throw-away culture.
“The food service industry’s reliance on disposables wastes money and the
planet’s resources, while causing harm to communities,” said Miriam Gordon,
Policy Director for Upstream and principal author of the report. “But the good
news is there’s a new reuse economy emerging that’s disrupting the current
disposable paradigm and replacing it with something better.”
Yes, times are luckily a’changing; and, thanks to major players such as
Starbucks beginning to allow reusable coffee cups
and conscientious restaurants and chains such as Just Salad — which long ago
implemented a reusable bowl program and
has since launched its zero-packaging-waste meal kit offering,
— and, the growing landscape of zero-waste dining and zero-waste restaurant
logistics is cause for optimism that a low-waste restaurant
841 million disposable food packaging items (7.5 million tons of
materials) can be averted annually.
Food service businesses can save $5 billion a year from no longer
procuring disposables, and businesses and city governments can $5.1
billion from not having to clean up after them.
193,000 jobs could be created in the collection, cleaning and
distribution of reusable products, and changing the way products are
delivered to consumers
Significantly reduced climate pollution, energy use, water consumption,
resource extraction, waste generation, litter generation and plastic
According to the report, the vast majority of LCA studies of food serviceware
show that reusables are better for the environment than single-use food
serviceware — in as few as two uses and only as many as 122 uses, reusable food
serviceware achieves environmental benefits over the disposables they replace.
Materials such as steel, glass and ceramics can be used thousands of times.
And costs of care for reusables shouldn’t scare businesses away: According to
the report, switching from single-use to reuse for on-site dining ends up saving
food-service businesses money 100 percent of the time — and that’s after
accounting for any capital costs for purchasing or leasing additional dishwasher
capacity and any added labor costs; nearly all restaurants have transitioned to
reusables without changing their dishwashing set-up or increasing labor costs.
And more broadly, reuse services create infrastructure and jobs in the community
that cannot be outsourced.
Learn more about the benefits of joining the reusables economy
Published Jun 18, 2021 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST