Pressures from state and local governments, eco-conscious consumers and global environmental groups are forcing the packaging industry to become more sustainable. Plastic and foam polystyrene are the most obvious culprits of environmental harm, but not the only ones. In the short term, switching to recyclable and compostable materials is the path many restaurants and retail outlets are following, and tech advances are providing more varied and affordable options. At the same time, restaurant delivery and subscription meal kit services are increasing the need for single-use packaging.
“The shift is coming, but in different ways,” says Natha Dempsey, president of the Food Packaging Institute (FPI), the “materials-neutral” trade association for the foodservice industry. “Economics plays into the choice, but performance and appearance matter to operators too. Packaging today is a complex and evolving landscape.”
A question of balance
Ever since Dos Toros Taqueria launched 10 years ago, the fast casual has made a conscious choice to source sustainable packaging, but “aesthetics and performance have to match those attributes,” says co-founder Leo Kremer. Bowls, plates, cups, bags and more are all compostable, but now that takeout and delivery are a much bigger part of the business, the containers have to hold up in transit, he says. “We’d like everything to be rapidly biodegradable, but they can’t start to compost in real time.”
For Dos Toros, there’s a delicate balance between sustainability and durability, but Kremer says that compostables are continually improving. Right now, he purchases bioplastic forks and compostable plant fiber bowls with tight-fitting recyclable plastic lids, but the extra step of disposing the bowl and lid in separate containers can hinder sustainability efforts. Newer on the market are compostable, molded fiber clamshell containers with attached leak-proof lids that would solve that problem. Increased demand is making these more expensive in the short term, says Kremer, but as production volume increases, price will go down.
“Operators should not get complacent about materials but actively review what they’re using every year,” he says. “Simply reducing the weight of the materials used in a container can have a massive impact on degradation rates without sacrificing performance.”
Weighing cost and commitment
Dempsey agrees that innovations in paper and molded fiber packaging are making compostable products much more durable and leak-proof. “Through advanced technology and materials science, we are able to offer molded fiber packaging with the performance characteristics of plastic but at a lower cost when manufactured at scale,” says Alex Garden, CEO of Zume Inc. Zume’s round pizza box, made of 100% sustainable sugarcane fiber sourced from agricultural waste, is now in test at Pizza Hut locations. Not only is it better for the environment but the rounded design also enhances food quality and texture, he says.
The company is also leveraging technology to create custom food packaging designs, including cups, bowls, plates, utensils, trays and more. All are compostable, so after use, they can be used to produce biomatter and soil to put back into the food system. Unlike recyclable plastic containers, they do not have to be washed—food scraps compost along with the packaging. And unlike polystyrene, “we’re now in the advent of a time where, due to technology, there is no longer a trade-off between performance, cost and sustainability,” Garden says.
Historically, the cheapest molded packaging, traditionally used for clamshells, cups and takeout boxes, has been made from polystyrene—a top producer of hazardous waste. Greener choices evolved, with molded fiber packaging made from paper, wood and wheat straw gaining traction. But now cutting-edge manufacturers are moving on to sugar cane, bamboo and palm leaves as more sustainable choices.
“The traditional hot cup was made from wood fiber with a petroleum-based liner, but cutting down trees causes environmental problems,” says Mark Marinozzi, vice president of marketing for World Centric, a manufacturer of compostable and biodegradable products. World Centric now uses a combination of sugar cane and bamboo fibers to mold its cups, lining them with plant-based bioplastic. “These cups are really good at retaining heat and are very close in price to less sustainable ones, almost 1 to 1,” says Marinozzi.
When a chain as large as Pizza Hut gets on board, it creates economy of scale for sustainable packaging and servingware. That bodes well for the future because cost has been a roadblock for operators. Operators including Dos Toros are saying that prices have stabilized, and some have even decreased for older compostables, but newer packaging innovations are always pricier when introduced.
“We’re now in the advent of a time where, due to technology, there is no longer a trade-off between performance, cost and sustainability.” —Alex Garden, Zume Inc.
Austin, Texas-based Snap Kitchen, which produces healthy prepared meals for both at-home subscription delivery and supermarket grab-and-go cases, switched from plastic to compostable corn-based fiber containers about a year ago. Lids are recyclable plastic to assure a tight seal, but advances in molded fiber packaging may provide a more convenient and sustainable option.
Photograph courtesy of Snap Kitchen
But a big challenge remains: what to do with all the excess packaging that comes when a week of dinners or meal kits are delivered to a customer’s home. “The key is making sure all elements are either consumable or biodegradable,” says Snap CEO Jon Carter. “Sustainability is core to our mission, and we’re finding partners who can execute against that mandate.”
Carter is paying close attention to the tech innovation around producing more sustainable cardboard cartons. But Snap is also exploring low-tech solutions, including using frozen blocks of food as the cooling medium instead of nonrecyclable insulation and chemical ice packs.
Photograph courtesy of Snap Kitchen
Also going in a lower-tech direction is noncommercial foodservice operator Christine Marcus, co-founder and CEO of Alchemista, which counts companies such as TripAdvisor and Accenture among its B&I clients. It has operations in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., each with its own commissary. While Alchemista does use compostables made of palm leaves and sugar cane for her EnRoute grab-and-go business, Marcus says she believes that reusables are the next iteration in corporate dining. Alchemista delivers the meals and servingware to each location, including plates, utensils and glasses, and provides bins for the dirty dishes. Employees then cart them back to the commissaries to wash and reuse them.
Alchemista is a premium foodservice provider, and the company’s corporate clients are willing to pay more for labor and other costs incurred with reusables, says Marcus. “Both food presentation and reducing the carbon footprint are priorities, and they feel the extra cost is worth it,” she says. “We’re not just switching materials, we’re rethinking the whole supply chain.” Sometimes the lowest-hanging fruit is not new technology—it can be as simple as a sturdy reusable plate or a brown paper bag, she says.
Where do we go from here?
Currently, there are 370 unique bills in more than 40 states legislating against plastics and other environmentally harmful packaging materials, says Marinozzi. And 2020 will no doubt bring more. “Operators may not have a choice anymore. They may get fined if they’re not in compliance,” he says. In addition, as their competitors go green, operators will have to follow suit or lose customers. There’s a groundswell of support for sustainable packaging—especially among the younger generations, Marinozzi says.
“Retail is ahead of foodservice because restaurants are reluctant to pass on the added cost of sustainable packaging to customers,” says Ray Hatch, CEO of Quest Resource Management Group. “This will change five years down the road, as consumers [led by environmentally minded Gen Zers] will be more apt to pay a little more for a meal that comes in sustainable packaging.” He and others are suggesting operators add a 2% packaging surcharge to the price of a menu item.
“There will be more changes in packaging in the next 10 years than have occurred in the last 50,” says Dempsey of FPI. Startup companies are exploring and manufacturing on a small scale disposables made of cassava, mushrooms and seaweed—all materials that degrade more rapidly and can be scaled up for production. The creator of the mushroom packaging, which is made from mycelium and the agricultural byproduct of hemp, claims it’s cost-competitive with conventional foam packaging. On the grocery side, food and beverages packaged as edible pods and capsules are already in development for coffee, and boxes that start to degrade along with the pasta or rice inside are realities, says Hatch. “These kinds of packaging will be commonplace in five years,” predicts Marinozzi. “They will be second nature, much like electric cars.”