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Waste Not
The Zero-Waste Movement Is Taking Hold in the Restaurant Sector

For a growing number of restaurant operators and diners, our throwaway culture is no longer acceptable. The growing landscape of zero-waste dining and zero-waste restaurant logistics is cause for optimism that a low-waste restaurant industry is achievable. 

The zero-waste movement is growing, and the proof is in the restaurant industry.

Every day, diners are saying no to trash and yes to reusables. They’re bringing reusable containers to quick-serve restaurants, signing up for zero-waste food-delivery platforms, and choosing “Reusable Containers” and “No Utensils” when ordering from their favorite eateries.

Why are they doing this? Because they’re fed up with the notion that we must create trash every time we eat a restaurant meal. Americans use 1.5 billion pounds of disposable food containers annually, and recycling and composting cannot keep up with this volume. Plus, zero-waste diners know that plastic forks and other packaging materials marketed as “biodegradable” will not biodegrade anywhere unless the following conditions are met:

  1. It’s actually taken to a compost facility;

  2. The composter accepts it; and

  3. The material is truly compostable — which means it breaks down in 180 days or less.

Zero-waste food ordering

It’s an absurd situation: The useful life of a disposable food container is measured in minutes — it is headed for the waste bin as soon as you’ve finished your meal. To create these short-lived items, we extract planet-warming fossil fuels and mobilize international supply chains. There’s also the fact that the plastic utensils and packaging that surround our food can degrade into microplastics that end up in our food. 

All of this makes zero-waste diners uneasy, and it’s fueling a dining subculture that prioritizes reusables. Public health experts are on board: In mid-2020, more than 100 doctors, nurses and scientists publicly affirmed the safety of reuse-and-refill systems. “Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded,” they wrote. 

This is why Just Salad, a restaurant chain with 41 US locations, is piloting a zero-waste model for online food ordering. Starting at one of its New York City stores, customers can order online in a reusable bowl and bring it back to the store for washing and sanitation. In the first few weeks of the pilot, over 20 percent of pickup orders are coming in through this program, with no marketing or promotion. Our next step is to offer this same program for delivery orders. We’re watching closely to see how quickly customers return the containers and what behavioral nudges work best (read our Sustainability Report to learn more about this pilot).

Redefining “convenience”

We’re not alone in advocating for a waste-free food culture. Global chains including McDonald’s and Burger King have announced plans to pilot reusable containers in 2021 and 2022. In San Francisco, Doordash customers can select a Reusable Container option when they order from participating establishments; and Dispatch Goods — a zero-waste logistics service for restaurants — will pick up the empties. DeliverZero, a food-delivery platform that uses reusable containers exclusively, has established a foothold in New York City. Visit its website and you’ll see a growing number of participating restaurants (including one of Just Salad’s locations). 

The zero-waste dining movement extends beyond fast-casual restaurants. You can order groceries from Wally Shop, Loop or — if you’re in California, Texas or FranceZero Grocery, Trashless or Carrefour, to name a few. 

Consumers who embrace these models are motivated by emotional payoffs that trump convenience. If we define convenience the traditional way — in terms of saved time and effort — then, disposable containers will always win. For zero-waste diners, saving time isn’t the ultimate goal; it’s saving resources. They still value their time and lead busy lives, but their notion of convenience puts planetary wellbeing front and center. 

Put another way: When zero-waste diners order food the conventional, wasteful way, they’re not grateful for the convenience of disposables. Instead, they experience a sharp twinge of guilt when it comes time to clear away the plastic mess. Zero-waste ordering replaces that unpleasant feeling with a positive one — the sense that they’re contributing to a more sustainable type of consumption. 

How to ease into zero-waste dining

Image credit: Just Salad/Facebook

To those who might be squeamish about eating out of reusable containers, my first response is to gently challenge their logic. At the dentist, do they object to the metal tooth scraper that has been used on countless mouths before yours? At their favorite restaurant, do they object to the metal tongs and mixing bowls used to prepare their order? Probably not — because they have confidence that the item was sanitized. Reusable food containers are sanitized in the same way. 

For those who are simply not ready to embrace the zero-waste models mentioned above, there are other ways to support this movement. For 15 years, Just Salad has offered a program that lets you purchase a Reusable Bowl, which we fill using a 100 percent contactless procedure. You own the bowl, and it never makes contact with anyone’s hands but yours.

An entirely different approach is to tackle food waste. Apps such as Too Good to Go let you order food that restaurants would otherwise discard that day, at a steeply discounted price. 

For a growing number of restaurant operators and diners, our throwaway culture is no longer acceptable. Together, we must redefine “convenience” to save not only time and trouble, but also the planet. The growing landscape of zero-waste dining and zero-waste restaurant logistics is cause for optimism that a low-waste restaurant industry is achievable.