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According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Industry report, two-thirds of U.S. adults said they’re more likely to order takeout from a restaurant now than before the pandemic.

How food delivery is changing to become more sustainable

The food delivery wave is choking landfills with plastic, but legislation and eco-friendly trends are making reusables more of a reality

During the height of the pandemic, with restaurant dining rooms shuttered, many American kitchens and dining rooms filled with smiley face plastic delivery bags, disposable cutlery and single-use containers. Since the return to normalcy, the on-demand delivery culture has not abetted, and our appetite for restaurant delivery has only grown.

In fact, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2023 State of the Industry report, two-thirds of U.S. adults said they’re more likely to order takeout from a restaurant now than before the pandemic. And according to the international membership forum, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, plastic waste has doubled from 2000 to 2019, and 40% of it comes from packaging. That’s a lot of clamshell containers.

But there’s a national movement to change the restaurant industry’s approach to single-use plastics and disposables, and it’s starting at both a federal and local legislative level and also with individual operators. Last month, President Biden’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy set a goal of replacing 90% of fossil fuel-based plastics with biodegradable alternatives over the next two decades. Doubling down on this ambition, President Biden passed an executive order on April 21, reiterating his goal of environment justice across multiple categories including a mitigation of the plastic pollution crisis.

There are many dozens of examples of restaurants large and small that are already taking action to eliminate harmful plastics from the trash heap, including Haven Hot Chicken, an emerging Connecticut-based hot chicken brand that recently just took steps to decrease its carbon footprint by making all silverware biodegradable and compostable, using only paper biodegradable packaging, and serving drinks in recyclable aluminum packaging.

Making the switch to biodegradable packaging instead of cheaper plastic packaging (which is easier to purchase and about 10% cheaper) was a challenging transition for the growing brand:

“Finding the right partner who can make our custom packaging, deliver it to our suppliers so they can deliver to us as needed, have the correct insurance, lead times and minimums that make sense for us and be priced competitively… all of this took us about 1.5 years to get over the line,” Jason Sobocinski, co-founder and president of Hot Haven Chicken told Nation’s Restaurant News. “Haven Hot Chicken has made a commitment to be rigorous and relentless in the pursuit of new ways to make our business more sustainable environmentally, consciously in our community and through our philanthropic initiatives.”

Although restaurants offering recyclable and compostable packaging has been an ongoing effort for years, there is a movement to take this commendable effort one step further to ditching single-use packaging altogether. The reusable packaging industry has been gaining momentum over the past several years with companies like DeliverZero and Dispatch Goods offering solutions for a closed loop reusable packaging system so restaurants and customers can have more options than just recycling or throwing away their food packaging. Operators like Burger King and Just Salad have tested out reusable packaging pilots, but experts say it is high-time to expand these reusable packaging programs beyond just small test markets.   

“We are in a place right now with our planet where we just cannot afford to continue to extract materials and use them for five minutes,” Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association said. “You can try to recycle them but often they will end up on our beaches and in landfills for a long time. […] We have to transition to using all reusables at least in-house, but then what happens when food leaves the restaurant? […]  Reusables are at the early adoption and we need to […] get over that initial hump.”

Oshman compared this stage of adoption for reusable delivery containers and cutlery to where electric vehicles were ten years ago, when they were considered a novelty vehicle for the wealthy. Now, electric cars have become more ubiquitous and experts say they could catch up with the price of traditional gasoline cars sometime this year. Hybrid cars, Oshman said are like that in-between stage of recycling and composting.

“For cars, the end goal was never hybrid cars,” Oshman said. “Composting is great for certain times or locations like baseball games or festivals where you can’t [do reusables[ because these 50,000 people are only coming for three hours and they’re not repeat customers. Put the leftover hotdog bun and plate in the compost bin when you used to just throw it in the garbage […] this is going to be a gradual change. But what does need to happen is any responsible restaurant should engage with a reusables option, even if it only ends up being five or 10%.”

More and more restaurants and foodservice chains are coming out with their own reusables programs, including New York City-based City Winery, which just expanded its reusable wine bottle program, Re-Wine, which allows customers to take wine to-go in a wine growler, and then return the growler to be washed and reused (and receive a $5 credit in the process). The program is currently available at five locations in New York Chicago, and St. Louis with more to follow.

Starbucks is also getting in on the reusables trend, as the coffee giant just announced its largest reusables program test pilot in Colorado, with 184 stores participating now through June. For this program, customers let baristas know they’ve brought their own mug or cup when they place an order for coffee or tea in the drive-thru and receive $0.10 back and 25 Starbucks Rewards stars as a reward. Starbucks also has a handful of 100% disposables-free stores, where customers can only order coffee in cups they brought along with them, reusable cups or they can opt for “for-here-ware” which does not leave the Starbucks store.

“Through testing, our goal is to learn how to offer customers a way to shift from single use cups toward a reusable to-go-coffee experience, in a way that is convenient, easy and enjoyable, while also providing a standardized and barista-informed solution,” a Starbucks spokesperson said. “Our goal is to expand this program nationally and for all customers in the US and Canada to be able to use their own personal reusable cup for every store visit by the start of next year.”

Local legislation is also tiptoeing into the reusables movement. Earlier this month, New York City’s City Council introduced legislation that would require corporate-owned fast-casual food establishments in New York City to offer customers the option to request reusable food packaging and participate in a reusables return system like DeliverZero, where customers request containers when they place a food order, return home, and then drop off the container sometime over the next three weeks at a drop-off point. They can also choose to request a scheduled pickup of the packaging at their home or can return the container on a subsequent order. The legislation — which will be voted on in the next few months — is meant as a pilot program, as it does not currently include quick-service restaurants, franchised restaurants, or independent operators.

“It’s not saying all consumers have to use these reusables, but they can if they want to,” City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez told Nation’s Restaurant News. “If I go to Sweetgreen, I have the choice to use [standard packaging], or I can request a reusable, take it home with me, then drop it off, or take it back to Sweetgreen the next day and use it again. These are the choices we want consumers to have […] The packaging is not yet consistent or standardized, so […] in this way you’re also protecting the consumer by giving them options.”

Right now, the issue with reusables for both the consumer and the restaurant is lack of standardization, which means that the investment cost for operators varies depending on which reusables program they choose. Nick Johnson, owner of Raiz Modern Mexican restaurant, a supporter of the proposed New York City legislation and participant in the DeliverZero program, said that in general, price can be an obstacle for operators that want to become more environmentally conscious.  

“[Non-reusable eco-friendly containers] are very costly-- usually double the price of non-eco-friendly containers,” he said. “I know this is the reason larger chains don't want to go that route. It cuts into their profits and that's not in their best interest. But my view is, if we all used more reusable products it would address the cost issue and almost eliminate it completely.”

The challenge of standardization across the budding reusables industry is real: each of the independent reusables companies works differently, has different policies, fees, and return practices, which makes it more complicated to mandate or even for individuals to participate in. But that will change over time, Michael Oshman said.

“We have to create a universal system,” he said. “Going back to electric cars, if every electric car company had its own plug, it would drive everybody crazy. […] The government needs to step in and mandate that there's space in apartment buildings not just for recycling and composting, but that there are bins for reusables too, and figure out how to have them picked up and go back to where they're supposed to go. That’s what we’re going to have to do if we want to make this a universal habit and not just something people like me do.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

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