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May 26, 2023

Consumer interest in biodegradable and reusable restaurant packaging is still growing, and a push to ditch single-use cutlery and condiments may spark bigger behavior changes.

Many diners are willing to pony up for sustainable restaurant packaging, but for restaurants, the path to adopt greener materials is challenging.

The industry is battling a complicated web of policies, from localized bag fees to statewide efforts to squash styrofoam. Restaurants must also contend with a lack of infrastructure to support the compostable alternatives that, while easily purchased, are often tossed in the trash. A cultural reliance on convenience hinges sustainable packaging strategy on options that are as easy to dispose of as non-sustainable materials, as well.

Consumer expectations have shifted, too — the pandemic stretched takeout business from its quick-service baseline to include fine dining eateries and everything in between. As a result, the idea of what foods were fit for a box, and what boxes are best, changed.

An influx of opt-in policies within the industry and through state regulation, however, may provide an essential stepping stone to getting customers to embrace more serious reusable routines.

Just Salad, a pioneer of reusability in the U.S. restaurant space, launched in 2006 with its MyBowl program in place. Fast casual salads required lots of plastic, but the reusable bowl — essentially a deep, curved Tupperware with a lid — aimed to shrink that footprint while encouraging consumers to change their behavior. Guests pay $1 up front for the bowl, and agree to wash it before returning for another meal.

After pausing the program in 2020, reuse orders resumed the following year. A promotion in February — a one-day deal of $8.99 for a salad or warm bowl in that reusable blue buddy — drew customers in droves, according to Alex Harden, sustainability lead at Just Salad.

Reusable orders increased in the days leading up to the sale and in those that followed, peaking around 14%, she said.

This “lasting impact” is a case study that reflects diner interest in reusability, even as office lunch traffic remains below its pre-pandemic levels. Forty-three percent of diners would pay extra for restaurant takeout that is more sustainable, a 2022 Deliverect survey finds.

According to a 2021 update from Euromonitor International, consumer interest in sustainable packaging did not wane in the face of altered routines or rising prices. Almost half of consumers reported taking advantage of more sustainable materials in 2020, and only about one-third of businesses believed their buyers would inch back to pre-pandemic plastic consumption.

In an April Euromonitor survey conducted on behalf of Trivium Packaging, known for its recyclable metal retail containers, more than half of consumers, regardless of income level, said they are willing to pay up to 10% more for products in sustainable packaging.

The gusto behind bans on plastic bags and — for better or worse — straws has not yet extended to other everyday restaurant materials, but recent initiatives to curtail single-use cutlery might provide a model for success.

In addition to city and state regulations, third-party delivery companies and restaurant chains have accepted that to diminish a reliance on plastic, it must be removed from the default equation.

Just this year, New York City adopted its “skip the stuff” bill, which by July 1, 2024, will prohibit businesses from tossing single-use cutlery and condiments into takeout and delivery orders unless requested by the customer. Fines range from $50 to $250.

California and a few cities, including Washington, D.C., and Chicago, passed similar laws, colloquially known as “cut out cutlery” campaigns. The fine for giving out single-use cutlery unprompted in Denver is $999 on a second offense. As an example of how far this legislation can go, Washington state has banned single-use plastic bags, requiring at least an 8-cent fee for any bag, and passed “opt-in” rules for common one-time items. It goes beyond straws, too. Per the text, customers must request a lid for any cold beverage unless the customer is at a drive-thru, in a medical setting or other space where lids are used as a safety precaution.

An opt-in bill failed in the Colorado legislature last year after the sponsoring Democratic representative lobbied to remove the state’s enforcement abilities. But the bill was widely supported, according to local reports, especially by restaurants who stand to save thousands of dollars by not buying utensils of any kind, whether plastic or compostable.

All four major delivery providers have also jumped into the opt-in game on their platforms, joining the “Cut Out Cutlery” campaign. Postmates, where orders defaulted to no-cutlery since 2019, estimates that its participation prevents 122 million cutlery packs from being delivered per year, saving restaurants $3.2 billion.

It’s too early to tell if opt-in rules are enough to compel real change, but some restaurant chains aren’t waiting around to see.

At Chipotle stores in the U.S. and Canada, customers choose whether they want napkins and utensils, according to the Newport Beach-based chain’s 2022 annual report. Technology and engagement, the report adds, are key to providing a positive guest experience and, in turn, changing behavior that will shrink reliance on single-use products.

“We continue to seek opportunities to reduce waste through technology, alternatives, engagement, and creating a great customer experience,” Lisa Shibata, head of sustainability at Chipotle, wrote in an email to Restaurant Dive. The opt-in feature “gives the guest an opportunity to reduce unnecessary single-use items and prevent waste.”

Habits of Waste, an environmental nonprofit behind the Cut Out Cutlery movement, estimates that up to 40 billion utensils end up in our waterways and landfills every year, just in the U.S.

Last September, Taco Bell expanded a sauce-packet recycling program to accept similar packets from any brand, regardless of where the customer procured them. Its partner TerraCycle, which offers drop-off boxes for products like toothpaste tubes, provides a prepaid shipping label for consumers to send their used packets to a facility that will melt them into hard plastics for other products.

In an email to Restaurant Dive, TerraCycle said it does not currently work with other major restaurant names on similar programs. Additional “small, overlooked single-use items” for which the waste management company has infrastructure to recycle, according to the spokesperson, include paper and plastic straws, metal and plastic bottle caps, coffee bags, natural and synthetic corks, as well as disposable gloves and hair nets.

Considering that many municipal recycling systems can’t handle plastic cutlery or common takeout clamshells, TerraCycle also has a “Zero Waste Box” for those items mixed together

Plastic bag bans helped reusable totes become the norm. Straw bans caught the public’s attention. Opt-in rules that start small, as with cutlery, might be just the starting point the industry needs to bring customers over the edge.

Just Salad also offers an in-app toggle to receive cutlery. Harden emphasized that the goal of company-led initiatives and government policy are meant to challenge the notion of disposables as default.

MyBowl orders account for 7% of the annual total, she said, a statistic that reflects the company’s new measurement of success that highlights repeat users. The number now excludes first-timers.

She agreed that all of these efforts, including consumer willingness, are essential to changing the status quo. When asked why more restaurant companies did not follow suit, she admitted that “reusables aren’t the default, they’re not the mainstream — as much as I would want them to be. We’re just doing everything we can to make it mainstream, to make it as convenient as possible.”

That convenience still lies in the promise of reusable being “on-par” with disposable. One way Just Salad has embraced that caveat is through its BringBack pilot, launched in 2021 at 10 New York City stores and one in Florida. Customers scan a QR code to confirm they dropped off one MyBowl, and the next time they order on the app, they pick up their salad in a cleaned and sanitized reusable — solving the conundrum of digital ordering-ahead.

“We designed a program and made it work,” added Harden. “It’s certainly a challenge to retrofit an operation to support reusables, but it’s 100% possible.”