Plastics floating in the ocean contribute to the spread of invasive species and new diseases; the chemical compounds that make plastics so versatile can be absorbed by human bodies with negative health effects; and worst of all, plastics ingested by marine and wildlife often result in death.
And yet, restaurants remain stocked with plastics. From to-go silverware to branded cups and even some kitchen utensils, restaurants are perpetuating a vicious cycle that is doing irreparable harm to our environment. This issue is complicated by the current pandemic that is increasing the use of plastics for health and safety purposes.
In 2019, an investigation by The Guardian found a whopping 91% of plastics are not recycled. Instead, they end up in landfills, where the slow biodegradation eventually leads to contaminated groundwater communities depend on to survive.
The pandemic has made this problem worse for restaurants, too. Mother Jones describes the situation as Hygiene Theatre. Shared surfaces are frowned upon, so every item prepared has to have its own container to keep customers safe. The CDC recommended restaurants turn to disposable dishes and cutlery to cut down exposure. An unintended consequence of the guidance is that it caused plastic pollution to soar.
Still, several restaurants and food manufacturers are working to eliminate plastics from their operations. Here are just a few of them.
Reusable Food and Drink Containers
Burger King will begin experimenting with reusable Whopper boxes and soda cups in 2021, the company said in a press release. The company partnered with TerraCycle’s zero-waste circular packaging service to ensure returned boxes and cups are properly cleaned before redistribution. Initial test cities include New York, Portland, Oregon, and Tokyo with more to be announced before the end of the year.
The announcement is a part of Burger King’s promise to its customers that it will source 100% of its guest packaging from certified recycled and renewable sources by 2025.
To encourage customers to return the products, Burger Kind will charge a deposit on each purchase. Once a customer returns the products, they will receive a refund.
The restaurant also took steps over the summer to improve its carbon footprint by introducing a lemongrass-fed beef option for the Whopper, which it said would cut emissions from the manufacturing process. Burger King also offers Impossible Meat options for vegetarians who visit their restaurants.
“As part of our Restaurant Brands for Good plan, we’re investing in the development of sustainable packaging solutions that will help push the food service industry forward in reducing packaging waste,” Matthew Banton, head of innovation and sustainability with Burger King Global said in a statement. “The Loop system gives us the confidence in a reusable solution that meets our high safety standards, while also offering convenience for our guests on the go.”
Responsibly Sourced Packaging
Keurig Dr. Pepper (KDP) said it will transition its Snapple and CORE brand drinks away from virgin plastic bottles to 100% recycled bottles beginning in early 2021. The move will eliminate the approximately 46.3 million pounds of plastic the company uses annually.
“Transitioning to recycled plastic bottles for two of our key brands is a critical next step in Keurig Dr. Pepper’s commitment to a circular economy,” Monique Oxender, Chief Sustainability Officer of KDP said in a statement. “This important portfolio evolution enables us to offer consumers their favorite beverages, while meeting their desire for more sustainable packaging.”
KDP has a portfolio of over 125 drinks and 20% of the material used in its packaging is made from post-consumer recycled content. The company plans to increase this to 30% by 2025.
Similarly, No Evil Foods, a small-batch plant-based meat company from North Carolina, announced it is partnering with repurpose Global, a civic engagement enterprise, to reduce its carbon footprint by eliminating two pounds of plastic from the environment for every pound the company produces.
The company already reduced its plastic usage by packaging each of their Plant Meat varieties in an unbleached kraft carton that is fully home compostable. It is made from 100% compostable and recyclable materials, and their packaging utilizes plant-based ink and water-soluble adhesives instead of petroleum based alternatives.
“As a food manufacturer, plastic is a necessity to create safe products, but we can’t ignore our participation in a pressing global plastic-waste problem,” Sadrah Schadel, co-founder of No Evil Foods said in a statement. “For No Evil Foods, that means committing to plastic neutrality and choosing to do business responsibly and sustainably by removing twice as much plastic waste generated from our packaging. Until viable alternatives exist, we will continue to seek ways to manage the impact of the creation of our products.”
Dropping the use of plastics in a restaurant is no overnight feat. In fact, it takes the Earth 400 years to fully degrade petroleum-based “virgin” plastics once they’re buried in landfills. This means the nearly 14 million tons of plastic the US put into landfills in 2017, according to the EPA, won’t fully degrade until at least 2417.
Upscale coffee shop, Blue Bottle Coffee Lab, is doing its part to keep plastics out of landfills by utilizing bioplastics—plastic that is made from organic materials like plants, starch, or woodchips—in lieu of traditional to-go cups. The company’s CEO, Bryan Meehan, said in a blog post that Blue Bottle “acknowledges [it is] a part of the problem” and is setting a goal to divert 90% of its waste away from the 70 landfills around their global locations.
The company will also experiment with a zero-single-use-cup program at its San Francisco locations. Customers can bring their own coffee cup, or use one of Blue Bottles. But, customers must enjoy and finish their beverage at the café.
Blue Bottle’s overall goal is to produce zero waste in 2021 with further sustainability goals to be set in the coming years. To accomplish their goals, the company partnered with Conservation International, an environmental advocacy group.
“Recycling is important, but the focus needs to be on the other two Rs: reduce and reuse,” Dr. M. Sanjayan, Conservation International’s CEO, said in a statement. “Efforts like the one Blue Bottle is piloting are really exciting to me because of how they engage consumers directly with being part of the solution. Yes, we need companies to make big changes, but we need consumers to change their behaviors too.