New Guide Helps Restaurants Reduce Plastic

It's full of practical advice, resources, funding info, and case studies.

barista hands over coffee in reusable stainless mug

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Restaurant owners, listen up! If you have dreamed of eliminating single-use plastic from your business but felt daunted by the prospect, help is at hand. A new guide from an organization called Beyond Plastics, titled "Hold the Plastic, Please: A Restaurant's Guide to Reducing Plastic," outlines the steps required to become more sustainable in both the front and back of the house.

The 47-page guide, which is is free and available online for anyone to access, states that a shocking 44% of plastic litter in the ocean consists of takeout food and drink containers. (The second biggest source is fishing gear.) Restaurants are a significant driver of the plastic pollution problem, and are thus well-positioned to effect real change by adjusting their practices. Diners are becoming more aware of the problems related to plastic and eager for something better, as well.

Reducing plastic in restaurants makes everyone happier. "Industry research has found that the use of plastic makes consumers feel guilty, frustrated, and annoyed—precisely the opposite of what restaurant owners want their customers to experience. The majority of people surveyed also shared that they feel restaurants must do more to address the plastics problem directly," said Megan Wolff, lead author of the guide and Beyond Plastics policy director, in a press release.

How to Do It (in a Nutshell)

The guide suggests that restaurants start with a plastic audit that assesses the quantity and types of plastic being used throughout the business. This information will help to make more strategic decisions. The next step is to involve staff, which is crucial for a successful transition, as well as customers, who are likely to be very receptive. 

Next is to make the switch—perhaps the scariest part—but it shouldn't be. There are now numerous resources for making this go as smoothly as possible, from great reusable dishware and packaging to "better" disposables certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. Reusables are not as challenging as they may seem. The upfront costs are higher, but they pay for themselves quickly and always result in significant savings.

From the guide: "A disposable 12 oz hot cup distributed with a plastic lid may cost a vendor 10 cents. A white stoneware mug of the same size can be purchased for $1.70. A cafe that uses as few as 10 cups per hour will more than recouped the expense in 17 uses. After that, every use of the cup represents a 10 cent savings."

The environmental impact is even greater. "The ecological break-even point is the number of times a reusable product must be used in order to exceed the benefits of the same quantity of single-use items. Gains to the environment accumulate with every use beyond that point. According to a 2021 analysis by Upstream, reusable cups break even at between 2 and 122 uses, plates at 3 to 50 uses, and utensils as rapidly as twice."

For business owners concerned about having limited space for handling reusables, there are interesting options for outsourcing collection and washing in many urban locations. These companies operate like linen services, except for dirty dishes—taking them away to wash offsite, then returning them clean to the restaurant.

Financial aid is available to restaurants wanting to move away from single-use plastics. An donor-funded nonprofit called Plastic Free Restaurants "pays restaurants and schools to eliminate petroleum-based single-use plastic by subsidizing the purchase of reusable replacements." Grant money is also available for establishments in Washington, D.C.

woman eats vegan food at Japanese restaurant

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The guide is well-written and thorough, complete with case studies from restaurateurs who have ditched plastic successfully. It is practical, inspiring, free from judgment—an all-around great resource for anyone who wishes to challenge the status quo and be a more eco-minded business owner.

Indeed, the guide's goal is to help, not to criticize or induce guilt. As Beyond Plastics' president Judith Enck said, "Restaurants, in particular, have a big role to play in addressing our plastic pollution crisis. We want to help restaurant owners and managers take the first step towards becoming part of the solution." 

It's worth adding that responsibility lies with customers, as well. The way in which we choose to eat has a significant effect on how much waste is generated. If more people took the time to sit down and enjoy a meal at a table, rather than eating on the go, there would be fewer takeout containers, plastic utensils, and non-biodegradable condiment sachets going to landfill. As we've said before, "Change the culture, not the cup." We all must slow down to make choices that are better for the planet.

View Article Sources
  1. Morales-Caselles, Carmen, et al. "An Inshore–Offshore Sorting System Revealed From Global Classification of Ocean Litter.Nature Sustainability, vol. 4, no. 6, 2021, pp. 484-493., doi:10.1038/s41893-021-00720-8