Packaging bans bring an invisible mess for operators
As cities enact single-use packaging bans, the industry suggests uniform terminology.
We’ve all seen appalling images of the great Pacific garbage patch, along with closer-to-home parking lots, sidewalks and medians polluted by plastic bags, burger boxes and other foodservice items blowing in the wind. Moving from shock to action, cities across the country are taking aim at single-use delivery and takeout packaging by creating a new, invisible mess for franchised and independent restaurateurs trying to keep up with a patchwork of new restrictions and regulations.
The positive intent of cities that have enacted new law combating single-use litter is clear. Unfortunately for restaurant operators, however, these cities aren’t working in tandem, so one city’s requirement for “marine degradable” packaging isn’t the same as other cities that require “sustainable” or “biodegradable” materials for takeout or delivery.
Seeking a better sense of how packaging bans will proliferate, we spoke with three stakeholders in the debate: Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, Madalyn Cioci, a waste prevention specialist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Liliana Esposito, chief communications officer of Wendy’s, which recently committed to using more sustainable off-premises packaging.
Squaring up sustainability
As part of its Squarely Sustainable drive, the seventh-largest U.S.-based franchised restaurant will reduce and minimize the use of unnecessary materials, seek certified sustainable materials when possible, identify customer-facing actions that can drive change and engage its partners to find solutions that will benefit the environment.
Liliana Esposito said Wendy’s future planning isn’t easy because “the reality is there are not widespread commercially available alternatives” to traditional QSR materials like napkins, burger boxes and plastic drinking straws and lids.
She noted that as municipal recycling programs face major challenges with rising costs and China’s ban on accepting American recyclables, pivoting to new materials has been challenging for unexpected reasons, including disabled customers who require certain performance standards for items like straws, as one example.
“It’s not just what is the packaging alternative,” Esposito said. “If you have materials that are technically recyclable but you don’t have facilities that are willing to accept them, then you’re not actually recovering that product.”
As Wendy’s looks to go mainstream with packaging changes, Esposito said differing language in municipal packaging standards means what works in one city might be illegal in another, even with good intentions on both sides of the fence.
“Companies like us, we want to do the right thing,” she added. “If there are clear definitions around that, you can do it. If not, then it becomes harder.”
Narrowing recycling programs
Lynn Dyer of the Foodservice Packaging Institute said municipal packaging bans are a high priority for her organization, though certain manufacturers approach the topic from different angles. Plastic or polypropylene packaging manufacturers point out that their to-go or delivery containers can be repurposed at home and require less water to manufacture than containers made with fibrous materials. On the flip side, cardboard-based packagers tout their products’ ability to eventually decompose into harmless soil—even though landfills tend to entomb and isolate waste, rather than allow natural processes to run their course.
“In states like California where you really do have a patchwork of legislation for operators, that can be very challenging from a supply chain perspective, making sure you’re using the right packaging in the right stores,” Dyer said.
In California, Dyer said Berkeley’s recent legislation requiring only compostable takeout and delivery packaging is causing significant angst for manufacturers and restaurant operators alike. The Berkeley Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance will require restaurant customers to bring in their own cup for beverages or pay a quarter for a disposable one.
“Starting July 1, 2020, every restaurant that serves their customers in the store has to use reusables, even if you’re a quick-serve restaurant,” Dyer said. “All your McDonald’s, all your Burger Kings, all your Starbucks, you name the brand, that typically has 70 percent of their packaging leave the store” and will now have to find labor and space to wash reusable materials, which could create significant operational and financial challenges.
She also pointed to new rules from Santa Monica, California, specifying “marine degradable packaging,” which she added is not a standard term in the industry or among environmental regulators. Santa Monica’s Disposable Food Service Ware Ordinance went into effect January 1, and allows paper, fiber, wood, wheat straw, bagasse or edible materials, while prohibiting plastic, bio-plastic and aluminum.
Dyer stressed protecting the environment is also important to her constituency, but cautioned that elected officials need to think more holistically and work with the packaging industry, rather than imposing laws that might be difficult to interpret or implement.
She cited the latest example from St. Paul, Minnesota, where the city council banned “non-sustainable” takeout containers from restaurant and convenience stores earlier this month. Rather than focusing on specific products, Dyer suggested the city instead could allow the recycling of paper cups at the WestRock paper mill located in the city.
“Instead of doing that, you’re saying you want to ban them,” she added. “From our standpoint, we want to allow the operators themselves to determine what is the best product for their operations, for their customers, and if they want to use a PE-coated cup, allow them to use a PE-coated cup, particularly in a space where they could easily be recycled.”
At the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Madalyn Cioci has spent 12 years focused on helping citizens and businesses make the best behavioral choices to reduce, reuse and recycle—and she was careful to note that old expression is listed in order of priority.
Cioci urges businesses and consumers to take a “lifecycle perspective” that includes everything involved in creating a given piece of packaging—from land use, water and electricity consumption, to what happens when a container is eventually thrown away.
Biodegradable is a term she said is especially confusing, as previous generations focused on eliminating trash as an eyesore. Now that we know plastics break down into microplastics that persist in waterways, Cioci said biodegradable “is not really what we want.” Compostable packaging, she added, means that the material will break down into a soil amendment that doesn’t include any plastic polymers.
“We do worry about those terms,” she said. “When something says it’s degradable, what does it degrade into? What are we really talking about there?”
For consumers and restaurants, she recommended focusing on using the smallest amount of packaging, with simple, natural materials like brown paper bags or tin foil instead of bulkier, insulated products whenever possible.
She also urged brands to encourage customers to bring to-go containers back to the restaurant to reduce the amount of material used on a larger scale—with reduce, again, being the top priority. That’s more important than focusing on packaging that’s compostable, she added.
Cioci also stressed she is “more concerned about the food” rather than the packaging in many cases, taking into account the steep environmental costs of certain aspects of food production, which tend to be higher than packaging. That means remembering to finish food that’s delivered or taken home, hearkening back to kids being instructed to join the “clean plate club.”