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Business Case
Disposables to Reusables:
Food-Service Businesses Can Save $5B a Year, Avoid Countless Environmental Impacts

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 Wins – 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 COVID – 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 costs.

The environmental impacts of single-use plastic pollution 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 lies.

More and better recycling would help, but the state of our infrastructure 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 again, 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, Housemade — and, the growing landscape of zero-waste dining and zero-waste restaurant logistics is cause for optimism that a low-waste restaurant industry is achievable.

In a reuse economy, the report asserts:

  • 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 pollution.

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 here.


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