I wasn’t surprised when my server returned to the table with the remainder of my Korean BBQ short ribs and kimchi rice packaged to-go in a plastic container, but I was disappointed. Like most people, I’m becoming more and more aware of single-use plastic products. Businesses are, too; Trader Joe’s just announced a one million pound plastic reduction plan. States aren’t far behind, either; Hawaii has already enacted a partial plastic-ban, and New York is not far behind. How will restaurants embrace this movement?
Plastic waste is a rapidly growing problem. There’s currently a massive patch of (mostly plastic) garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean, known as the Trash Isles; it’s three times larger than France. And if you haven’t already, don’t watch this viral video of a sea turtle getting a plastic straw removed from its nose, because it’s heartbreaking. These visual reminders can be good motivators to inspire us all to do our part to reduce plastic consumption. Here are some ways you can contribute as a restaurant operator, as suggested by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, or PPC.
The first step recommended by the PPC is to assess how much plastic your restaurant purchases and consumes, including monthly order size and cost. This can come in the form of take-out containers for customers, to the ever-ubiquitous cling wrap that is relied on for food storage in the kitchen. Once you have an idea of how much plastic your restaurant uses, you can make a plan to reduce consumption. Based on what you discover, investigate reusable and non-plastic options.
Next, look at your purchasing and communicate with your suppliers; something as simple as requesting no extra packaging can make a difference. The PPC recommends buying in bulk, reducing your supply chain (when possible) and stocking as many reusable containers as possible, such as condiment dispensers and glass or metal salt and pepper shakers.
Another big step is to communicate with your customers. If you decide to eliminate disposable items you’ve identified as unnecessary, be clear with your customers, and they’ll appreciate the effort and probably want to chip in, too. Only offer items such as plastic lids and straws by request, and the PPC recommends getting creative with your to-go containers. Consider providing glass containers for a deposit that can be refunded upon return, or invest in branded, reusable containers your customers can purchase and use again and again.
Once you’ve implemented your changes, the PPC recommends keeping track of customer reactions by offering surveys or asking directly. Also, keep records on your shifting costs, and don’t forget to consider the benefit to the environment.
While plastic is an inexpensive convenience, public opinion and policy are shifting its popularity. Having a plan in place for your restaurant before states begin passing mandates can be beneficial. If you want to assess how well your restaurant is doing so far, a good place to start could be this survey offered by the Green Restaurant Association.