Move over, e-scooters! Takeout and delivery packaging bans are the hot new topic in cities as a growing number of municipalities address the increase in packaging that our hyper-convenient, food-on-demand lifestyles now require. The packaging industry has some thoughts on the subject, as you’d imagine, but we also spoke with a waste prevention specialist to outline out how restaurants and customers can minimize their impact on the planet without compromising on food quality.

The backdrop is dark and stormy for foodservice packaging manufacturers and restaurant operators trying to keep up with a succession of changes driving up costs in the industry. Whether it’s meal kits, delivered groceries, boxes from Amazon or prepared meals, we are collectively generating higher amounts of solid waste, with the EPA saying containers and packaging comprise nearly 30 percent of the total U.S. trash heap.

From Berkeley to Baltimore and Seattle to St. Paul, foodservice packaging bans are being signed into law, but non-uniform standards employed by various cities mean it’s increasingly difficult for the packaging industry and restaurant operators to keep up. It’s also worth noting that elected officials don’t always have their definitions right when determining what’s compostable, biodegradable and, ultimately, less harmful for the environment.

Defining sustainability

It’s a curious time for takeout and delivery packaging to hit the spotlight, as decades of messaging encouraged consumers to reduce, reuse and recycle—ideally in that order. Plastic straw and incandescent light bans became unlikely flash points in the social discourse as formerly obscure ordinance changes morphed into heated topics extending far beyond city hall.

For cities and waste management companies, recycling has become more challenging after China banned imported recyclables—meaning the problem is no longer hauled out of sight and out of mind. This narrowing of options has led several cities to look at previously uncouth options like burning excess materials and increasing loads sent to landfills.

Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, said municipal packaging bans are very high priority for her organization, even 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 packaging brands 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.

Asked what city has passed the most onerous legislation, Dyer called out Berkeley, California, which has been a national epicenter of environmental and social legislation for decades. Dyer said the its recent legislation requiring only compostable takeout and delivery packaging goes into effect next year and is causing significant angst for packaging 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” will now have to find labor and space to wash reusable materials, which could create significant operational and financial challenges.

She also pointed out 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 on January 1, and allows paper, fiber, wood, wheat straw, bagasse or edible materials, while prohibiting plastic, bio-plastic and aluminum.

Dyer stressed that 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 just banned “non-sustainable” takeout containers from restaurant and convenience stores earlier this month. Rather than focusing on specific products, Dyer suggested the city instead allows 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.”

Avoiding greenwashing

From the other side of the fence, Madalyn Cioci is a waste prevention specialist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. During her 12 years at the agency, she has focused on helping citizens and businesses make the best behavioral choices to reduce, reuse and recycle—and she was careful to note that familiar expression is in order of priority.

Cioci urges businesses and consumers 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 micro-plastics 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?”

Asked about the footprint of delivered groceries and meal kits, Cioci said her agency hasn’t taken an official stance on the topic, but said cooler packs in such deliveries add significant weight, which adds to the overall environmental impact. She has seen meal delivery companies claiming package is recyclable “where it is clearly not curbside recyclable,” a practice she referred to as greenwashing.

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.

When bare-bones packaging is not an option, for temperature or moisture considerations, she 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.

She also stressed that 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.”

Even as states like Minnesota change rules to allow customers to bring to-go containers from home into restaurants, Dyer countered that such old-school logic brings up host of concerns about food safety and liability for operators.

“From a restaurant operator standpoint, how are they protecting both their operations and other customers when somebody brings one of their own products into the store?” Dyer asked. “Our products were designed over 100 years ago to protect public health and provide a sanitary delivery of those prepared foods, and we know based on sanitation studies that those single-use items are far more clean than reusable items.”