April 08, 2024

How to transition to more sustainable food packaging

Moving to more eco-friendly packaging benefits the planet, supports business, and builds customer affinity.
Sustainable packaging

There are many tradeoffs and factors at play when determining the ideal packaging that checks boxes for performance and environmental stewardship.

Restaurants and foodservice operators are turning to more sustainable packaging, and their efforts are paying off. The path to implementing more sustainable solutions that work for your restaurant begins with understanding the choices available.

There are many tradeoffs and factors at play when determining the ideal packaging that checks boxes for performance and environmental stewardship.

“When making decisions around alternative packaging, operators need to consider packaging regulations, product availability, and waste-handling infrastructure in addition to the table stakes: food safety and packaging performance,” says Jon Hixson, Chief Sustainability Officer & Vice President of Global Government Affairs for Yum! Brands. 

Yum!, with four brands—KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill – and over 58,000 restaurants in 155 countries and territories, has committed to sustainable sourcing while focusing on reducing and mindfully reusing or recycling the waste generated at its restaurants. The company developed a harmonized cross-brand packaging policy that covers several focus areas across all brands: eliminating unnecessary packaging; shifting materials; supporting better recovery and recycling systems; and investing in circularity (starting with products that are more sustainably produced and seeing their lifecycle end sustainably). 

The company has reduced its use of expanded polystyrene to less than 1% of all plastic in its system and has goals to eliminate unnecessary plastics, reduce virgin plastic content by 10% and transition consumer-facing plastic to reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging across all brands by next year.

The National Restaurant Association has found that when it comes to finding more sustainable packaging alternatives, key considerations include: 

Performance. No matter what material you choose, eco-friendly packaging should serve its intended purpose—transporting food in the best condition possible. It should keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, be strong and durable and shouldn’t leak. More sustainable packaging options should be put through a rigorous testing phase before committing.

Sizing and shrinking SKUs. Size your containers to fit the portion. Too large and your servings will look small, move around in transit and the additional packaging is a waste. Too small and the contents can leak. Streamline your packaging and disposable-item use to minimize waste. Can you alter the presentation or portion size of items so that a single, more sustainable packaging choice can be used for multiple items? Onsite, can you use bulk dispensers of condiments in place of single-serve packets? Develop a policy that trains staff to ask whether customers want cutlery, straws, condiments or napkins rather than tossing quantities into every to-go bag. 

Ease of disposability. Customers can’t help you become more sustainable unless you make it easy for them to recycle or reuse the containers you choose. Let customers know what to do with their takeout containers when they’ve finished. Depending on the container, this might include recycling or composting, or reusing them as food storage. On site, use graphic signage to tell them what items to place in which bin. 

Local sustainability infrastructure. Not all packaging solutions will work well in all locations. The packaging you select may depend on whether your market offers curbside recycling or commercial composting. If your community has a strong curbside recycling program, you might choose PETE/PET (#1) or HDPE (#2) plastic containers but check the local policy. Some recyclers may not accept food packaging or may only accept plastic that’s clean and dry, with little or no food residue. Even compostable packaging doesn’t offer a sustainable advantage if it ends up in a landfill where it can’t decompose.  

Vendors. Choose suppliers who share your sustainability goals and are proactive in recommending good packaging alternatives. Sweetgreen, the Los Angeles-based salad chain, shifted away from house-made beverages during the pandemic, leaving it with a large inventory of beverage cups. Rather than waste them, the chain partnered with Atacama Mfg., Albany, Ore., and upcycled 30,000 lbs. of spare cups into compostable utensils for its units.

Branding. Look for sustainable takeout containers that can be customized with your brand and that messages that the container is sustainably sourced and/or can be sustainably discarded. 

Sustainable terminology

The language associated with sustainable packaging can be challenging to navigate, but some basics include: 

Compostable. Organic products that break down into natural, non-toxic elements within a determined time period. The ASTM standard for commercially compostable products is 90 days. (Home composting—vs. commercial—can take up to a year, but there’s no international standard.) All of Chipotle’s burrito bowls, bags, napkins, kids meal trays and quesadilla trays are made entirely from compostable natural fiber materials, enabling the company to divert nearly 50% of its waste materials away from landfills. The company is working hard to increase the number of restaurants (now 1,000) that have access to commercial composting, and it’s testing a new prototype bowl made with bamboo and bagasse (sugarcane pulp) that’s even more sustainable than its current bowl.

Post-consumer recycled content. Some packaging, particularly paper/cardboard, select plastics, and aluminum is at times labeled as containing a certain percentage of post-consumer recycled content. The higher the percentage, usually the more sustainable the package is. One plastic packaging manufacturer now says its process allows it to recycle PET indefinitely, so no virgin plastic needs to go into making new food-safe products. 

Recyclable. Packaging that can be collected, processed and manufactured into new products. Recyclable single-use foodservice packaging includes cardboard and unlined paper, aluminum and some types of plastic.

Reusable. Packaging and/or serviceware that can be washed sanitized, and reused again and again. Just Salad, A Philadelphia-based chain, offers customers their own “MyBowl” for $1.00. Every time customers use their bowl, they get a free topping. 

Packaging resources 

To dig deeper into more sustainable packaging, check out these resources:
  • BPI, the Biodegradable Packaging Institute, is a leading authority on compostable products and packaging. It has a listing of approved products and companies.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund’s UP (Understand Packaging) Scorecard offers restaurants a way to compare different packaging products and assess their impact on human and environmental health. 
  • PlasticScore is a consumer restaurant packaging rating site that also offers restaurants a free sustainability analysis and lets them control their ratings by recording changes they make to more sustainable packaging.
  • Upstream is a change agency for reuse in the U.S. and Canada that provides information and resources on shifting from single-use to reuse. Its research report on foodservice shows cost and environmental savings of reusables compared with single-use packaging.
  • The Recycling Partnership, a mission-driven NGO committed to advancing a circular
  • economy by building a better recycling system.
  • Rubicon provides a digital marketplace of sustainable solutions to help restaurants manage waste, composting and recycling needs.