Sustainable, Disposable Foodservice Products
Disposable products are one of the unfortunate necessities of the foodservice industry. Whether out of hygiene or convenience, every food business has to use a variety of disposable products. Today, there are a number of more sustainable options available including recycled content products, reusable options and biodegradable products.
The first steps in achieving sustainability when it comes to disposable products are the same basic principles of waste reduction: reduce, reuse and recycle.
First, reduce the amount and number of products used. Discontinue the use of unnecessary products like cocktail umbrellas, steak temperature signs, placemats and excessive use of any item. Place condiments, napkins, straws and other disposable items behind the counter or use devices that control the amount of product a customer can take like the Xpressnap. In addition, restaurants and coffee shops can cut the amount of disposable cups used by encouraging customers to bring their own cup for coffee and prohibiting employees from using disposable products. Even cafeterias, especially those on college and corporate campuses can encourage the use of reusable cups for coffee, soda, and other beverages or reusable containers for food. Reusable take-out containers like the Eco-Clamshell have been very successful in college cafeterias meal plans. Student pay a small deposit at the beginning of the year to use the reusable container, then exchange it each time they take a meal togo. These containers provide a huge opportunity for cafeterias to save a significant amount of money with a very short payback period considering the volume of their take-out business.
Finally, purchase products from companies that use the least amount of packaging necessary, and use recycled content in their packaging. Show a commitment to those suppliers that are going a good job with their packaging and tell others that you give preference to those companies that are making efforts to make their packaging more environmentally friendly.
Here are a few reusable options for items that are normally disposable:
- Take-out Containers
- Coffee filters
- Loose-leaf tea steepers / pots
- Drink coasters
- Durable spoons instead of tasting spoons
- Air filters for HVAC units
Finally, choose disposable products that are compostable or recyclable. Most foodservice disposable products are not recyclable either because they contain a plastic lining or are not a valuable commodity on the recycling market. Therefore, compostable products are a good choice if there is a commercial composting facility in your area. Check with your local recycling company to determine what materials they will recycle. Then close the loop by purchasing products made with a high percentage of post-consumer content and products that are packaged in recycled materials. Buying recycled content products keeps the cyclical nature of the recycling economy healthy.
There are several options for recycled content foodservice paper products. The EcoLogo and Green Seal organizations both certify disposable paper products under several different categories. The certification criteria differ between the two organizations. Green Seal places more emphasis on recycled content in the products, while EcoLogo bases its standards more on the manufacturing processes. Both organizations require companies to manufacture the paper products without the use of chlorine. Many other non-certified companies, including several distributor private-label brands, produce recycled content products. Items like brown paper towels usually have some amount of recycled content regardless of the manufacturer. Whether that recycled content is pre or post-consumer and the content percentage depends on the manufacturer.
Other disposables that contact food such as take-out boxes do not usually contain recycled content, but there are a couple products currently available. The sustainbility movement and market demand should spur more availablity of recycled disposable products. The most available recycled content take-out product is the Bio-Plus Earth container made by Fold-Pak, not to be confused with the Bio-Pak container made by the same company. Solo also released a line of recycled content drink cups under the Bare brand.
Another issue to consider with disposable paper products is the process used to make them and the paper used to make them. Many manufacturers use chlorine or chlorine compounds to whiten paper, which is a toxic process that produces many harmful by-products. The Chlorine Free Products Association sets standards for chlorine use in paper production and endorses companies that adhere to their chlorine-free processing standards, which also prohibits the use of old growth trees. Currently, the Cascades Tissue Group under the North River brand is the only company producing commercial paper products according to CFPAs quality standards. Several other companies produce various certified chlorine-free office paper products.
Many paper products outside of disposable category carry either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) label, which certifies those products as coming from sustainably managed forests. However, both labels have been criticized by environmental organizations and the Consumers Union, which produces Consumer Reports for relaxing standards, weak standards and conflicts of interest. Very few disposable foodservice products carry any sort of sustainable wood products label, although there will probably be more produced in the near future. The Bio-Earth container carries the SFI label, however, contrary to Fold-Pak's web site, the SFI label does not distinguish between plantation forests and old growth forests.
All disposable paper products are non-recyclable and most are not biodegradable either. With the advent of bio-plastics, several companies now manufacture biodegradable lines that use a bio-plastic lining. See Biodegradable below for more information on biodegradable products.
Plastic products are complicated matter because of the variety of plastics, recycling issues and toxicity issues related to the manufacturing and disposal of the varying grades. Most plastic containers are classified by a label system that uses a number surrounded by the chasing arrows. However, the arrows that usually symbolize a product as recyclable does not always hold true for plastics. Some grades of plastics are a more valuable commodity on the recycling market and therefore easier to recycle, while others like PVC are technically recyclable, but hard to recycle and therefore usually not collected for recycling. The #7 symbol classifies a container as ŇOtherÓ which could be any number of different plastics including bio-plastics so these plastics are rarely recycled.
The National Geographic Green Guide has a nice Plastic Container Buying Guide. The guide is geared towards home consumers, but the information they provide is relevant in the foodservice industry. The basic suggestions are illustrated in the Greenpeace plastic hierarchy graph below. Biobased plastics are considered the most preferable followed by polyethylene (#2), polypropylene (#5) and polyethylene Terephthalate (#1) plastics because they do not leach chemicals into food.
Polystyrene (#6 - Styrofoam), PVC (#3) and polycarbonate (#7) plastics are poor choices for food containers because they can leach harmful chemicals into food and produce hazardous by-products in their manufacture and disposal. Plastics can contain lead, cadmium, flame-retardants and other known carcinogens. Others chemicals used in plastics are hormone disrupters like phthalates that soften plastics and Bisphenol A (used in #7 containers), which mimics estrogen and has been linked to numerous health problems.
The Aveda Corporation created a Preferred Plastics Hierarchy that they use to choose acceptable materials for their product's containers. Although Aveda manufactures body care products, their hierarchy outlines a procurement policy foodservice operations can follow.
Aveda's Preferred Plastics Hierarchy
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Polyethylene Terepthalate (PET)
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Another issue to consider when choosing plastic disposable products is the recycled content in the products. Recycled content plastic products for use with food are quite limited. See the list of Biodegradable foodservice Product Manufacturers for companies making recycled content food and beverage containers. Other products like trash bags with post-consumer recycled content are readily available.
Reuse and Recyclability
The large majority of disposable products are single-use items, but some plastic containers such as take-out soup containers are potentially reusable for the end user. Other products like a line of "Ecotakeouts" from G.E.T Enterprises are designed for reuse. This line of products is being introduced as an easy and affordable reusable take-out option on college campuses across the country.
In addition to choosing items that can be reusable over single-use items, choose products that can be recycled. Not all plastics have a post-consumer recycling market. #1, #2, #4 and #5 are the plastics most often recycled. #6 plastic, used extensively in the foodservice market for cutlery, cups, plates and numerous other products like cocktail picks, is usually not recycled unless there is a large single product stream like beer cups from a football game. Unfortunately, the same often holds true for PET (#1) plastic cups. Even though they are the same plastic as #1 bottles, there is contamination potential because drink cups lack uniformity in plastic content and therefore often discarded by recycling facilities.
Plastic is a cheap, durable material, but is also energy intensive and made from non-renewable resources that could be better used elsewhere. Choosing products made from renewable resources like bamboo and wood that can be composted help reduce the amount of waste in landfills, reduce our dependency on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based plastics promise huge conservation potential, but currently there are a number of issues with these plastics. See the Biodegradable section for more info.
A frustrating search for green disposable products is one of the things that spurred the development of this web site. That was in 2002 when there were recycled products available, but only a couple companies manufacturing biodegradable products and hardly anyone distributing them. Today there are enough biodegradable products, manufacturers and distributors to make one's head spin.
While there are many more products on the market, it is still a challenge to distinguish one biodegradable product from the next, and find products that are truly sustainable. The industry has grown so quickly that many of the questions of biodegrability, material content, use of potential food products, GMO content, agricultural carbon footprint and overall sustainability have gone unanswered. Customer interest in sustainability issues should help answer many of these questions as the demand for information and higher sustainability standards catches up with the market demand.
One of the larger issues looming over biodegradable products, bio-plastics in particular is true compostability. Most biodegradable products, especially bio-plastics, will not degrade in home composting systems thus needing commercial composting facilities to break down the plastics. This alone takes a tremendous amount of infrastructure, which is currently not available in most areas of the United States. That said, the infrastructure should be built, not just for biodegradable plastics, but also for all compostable material produced by society. Food alone makes up 12% of US landfill space. Organizations that reside in an area with commercial composting facilities should take full advantage of the opportunity. Check www.findacomposter.com to find commercial facilities by zip code.
Even with available nearby facilities, starch-based or polylactic acid (PLA) plastics can pose a problem because they contaminate petroleum plastic recycling streams, though this is debated by the PLA industry. Customers who use biodegradable take-out containers must know that the products are biodegradable and cannot be recycled. They must put the containers in the commercial compost bins or throw them away if there are no facilities available. For this reason, in-house consumption, think straws, is one of the better options for using starch-based biodegradable products because trained staff can separate the items into the correct bins. Compostable PLA straws are one of the more viable biodegradable options available since they are cost competitive to plastic straws.
In addition, there are now petroleum-based plastics that contain an additive that makes the product biodegradable. The biodegradability of these products is highly debated in the industry, but bio-plastics do offer some advantages. First, because they are petroleum based they are priced similarly to regular plastics and avoid all the agricultural issues that PLA products pose. Second, depending on the type of plastic the products are made with, they are recyclable. According to the manufacturers, the additive poses no problem to the recycling stream. And finally, The petroleum based biodegradable plastics basically have the same qualities as regular plastic. They are light weight, durable and do not have the heat issues that PLA products do. They can stand up to coffee or chicken noodle unlike the some of the melty starch-based soup spoons, and have a longer shelf life. These products are not as widely available as the PLA products, but will probably be more common soon.
In summary, the biodegradable plastics industry in like any other new technology. There are several different products, everyone touts theirs as the best and most sustainable, any research is in progress and probably only one or two will make it in the end while the rest go the way of Betamax.
Besides the biodegradable plastics, there are also biodegradable paper products. One might think that paper products are biodegradable already, but many foodservice disposables are coated with a poly lining that prevents them from being recycled or composted. Several companies have come out with paper products coated with either a wax coating or a PLA coating that can compost. Other products like simple paper plates (uncoated – non-shiny), paper towels, paper straws and napkins without excessive ink will all compost well.
There are more sustainable options for almost every disposable product used in foodservice operations. Using bamboo or wooden bar skewers rather than plastic versions, choosing more recyclable products or changing practices to reduce the use of disposable products in general are all better options. A few are covered here:
Many different compostable bamboo and wood cocktail picks available look much cooler than plastic picks. If used in conjunction with biodegradable PLA or paper straws, you can compost all the waste from a bar.
Spikomat, an on-line retailer, has a site full of awesome bamboo and wood skewers. They are based in England so it is not practical for most companies in the US to order from them, but many of their products are available in the US. It is a great site to get new ideas. (90mm = about 3.5inches)
Most chafing dish warmers are made from petroleum-based ethanol and methanol blends along with various other chemicals. The Ecoflame chafing fuel is an ethanol-based fuel that is made from sugar cane. The manufacturer claims the product released no harmful vapors and offers the product in a bulk container to refill the heating tins.
There are a couple environmental issues regarding candles. First, while banned in the United States, many candles sold in the US particularly those manufactured outside the country contain lead in the wicks. Non-lead wicks contain zinc, tin, cotton, paperboard or hemp. However, zinc and tin wicks do contain a minute amount of lead. Voices of Safety International, a standards development organization that tested candlewicks in 2000, recommended that the Consumer Product Safety Commission ban tin wicks because of higher levels of lead concentration, but the CPSC has not done so.
The other problem with candles is emissions from petroleum content. Most candles sold as votives for restaurants are made from paraffin, which is a low-grade petroleum product. Burning paraffin releases minute amounts of toxic substances and contribute to poor indoor air quality. Vegetable based candles made from soy and palm oil, and bee's wax candles are better alternatives that do not release harmful emissions, but these candles are very expensive compared to petroleum based candles.
Down to Earth, a natural home and garden product distributor has a FAQ page on their web site that covers some of the health and environmental issues with petroleum based candles.
Liquid fuel candles usually burn liquid paraffin so they have some of the same issues as regular candles and are made with a non-recyclable plastic container. There are also many LED "candles" on the market, but these require batteries so the best option may be to do without candles altogether.
Additional Disposable Product Resources
California Recycled Content Products Database
Database maintained by the California Integrated Waste Management Board contains a wide range of household and commercial products.
Portland OR, Metro Buyer's Guide to Recycled Products
Large list of mostly commercial products made from recycled material.