As the pandemic caused a dramatic increase in work-from-home, at-home meal preparation followed. Restaurants responded to these trends by increasing their sales of to-go items, pre-packaged meals, and take-and-bake meal kits. While these are often traditional offerings around the holidays, COVID-19 forced restaurants to rethink their to-go and delivery strategy. Even grocery behemoths like Kroger are taking notice. The company recently announced it will begin offering quick, “restaurant-style” meal kits, the latest sign that consumer demand for home-cooked meals won’t wane after the pandemic is over.
The shift in consumer demand also contributed to the increase of frozen food purchases and plastic use by restaurants. Research by the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association found the pandemic resulted in a 17.4 percent increase in frozen food consumption. Frozen specialty foods, such as organic or natural products, also saw a 5 percent year-over-year increase in demand. Similarly, the National Institute of Health found that increased single-use plastic consumption in households could result in a 40 percent increase in plastic pollution over the next decade.
However, some industry analysts are not as concerned. The pandemic certainly forced restaurants to re-focus their business models, but it also accelerated a growing trend: overall reduced plastic use.
According to research by the Freedonia Group, an industry research firm, the specialty food packaging space stands to see a combined annual growth rate of 4 percent through 2024. The demand is primarily driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the research says. At its peak, the industry stands to be worth over $3 billion within five years, as demand for convenience-type and at-home preparation meals continues to stay strong. Brands that offer sustainable packaging stand to see the greatest increase in value over the same timeframe, the research concludes.
To incentivize restaurants to break free from plastics like single-use cutlery for to-go orders, fast-casual chain Just Salad released a sign-on letter for restaurants and food providers to support their sponsored legislation in Congress, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) 2021.
According to a report by The Spoon, the bill builds on an earlier version and calls for a greater reduction in plastic use and increasing the use of reusable and sustainable packaging. It also calls for greater protections for non-white and Indigenous communities, both of which are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution, the report says.
“The plastic pollution problem gets worse with each passing day,” Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics, told The Spoon. “The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is the most comprehensive and sweeping Congressional bill that addresses this problem.”
Between product costs, operational costs, and state-by-state regulations, there are several impediments to restaurants ridding themselves of plastics. While startups like W-Cycle in Israel are working to create eco-friendly, plastic-free packaging, right now the restaurant industry contributes to over 78 percent of all disposable packaging. Meanwhile, the U.S. uses over 36 billion pounds of single-use plastics every year, according to National Geographic.
“Restaurants don’t want to contribute to the plastic pollution problem. When it is adopted into law, this bill will eliminate some of the worst plastic products and boost alternatives to plastics,” Enck continued.
Some cities are taking the measure into their hands as well. Honolulu, Hawaii banned the use of single-use plastics in restaurants in early April. Winter Park, Florida followed suit and will begin enforcing a plastics ban on May 11. Countries like the Maldives and India are also slowly phasing in country-wide plastics bans as part of their climate goals.
Some restaurants worry about the impact of such measures during a year in which many businesses are still recovering. However, 2021 is also a year for restaurants to build toward a better, stronger, and more sustainable future. Eliminating plastics is a costly venture, but the rewards for those who can absorb the cost greatly outweigh the perceived losses.