Every to go container, every disposable cup, and every plastic fork your restaurant uses ends up in a landfill somewhere. Over the course of a year that adds up to millions of tons of trash from all the restaurants in the United States. For most restaurants, these disposable items are a necessary part of doing business, and the lower the cost, the better.
Yet more and more restaurants are turning to compostable versions of these disposable items, even though they tend to be more expensive than their styrofoam and plastic counterparts.
Why? Two main factors are driving the trend towards commercial composting:
Connecting with your customer. Overwhelming majorities of Americans support sustainable products like compostable cups, plates, and food containers. They may not be particularly motivated to spend more money for them at the grocery store, but when consumers encounter these products in places like restaurants, they tend to give the establishment high marks. When you connect with customers on issues they care about, you’re going to see loyalty and repeat business increase.
Adding another facet to your overall green program. Whether driven by pure moral conviction or a desire to connect with customers (or both), more and more restaurants are instituting green programs as a part of their business. The use of commercial composting and recycling systems have become widespread, and many restaurants employ programs to improve energy efficiency, reduce water use and carbon footprints. Using compostable products can add a powerful element to any restaurant’s green efforts.
What does compostable mean? Compostable products break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper) in an industrial composting facility. It may take these products longer to breakdown in a non-composting environment like a landfill, but in general these products break down exponentially faster than regular plastics and even biodegradable products. For a more complete explanation, check out this article: Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable.
What are the benefits of corn-based compostable products? Corn cups and other compostable products made from corn are beneficial because they use a crop that is already produced on a massive scale in the United States to replace petroleum (oil) based plastics that rely on a substance we must import. Corn-based products are also carbon neutral because the plants they are made from absorb an equal amount of carbon dioxide as is produced to harvest the crop.
What is PLA? PLA stands for polyactic acid, which is a polymer that is used to make a replacement for oil-based plastics. PLA is made from lactic acid, which is created when the dextrose (starch) found in biomass like corn is fermented. Today almost all PLA is created from corn, but in the future PLA will be made from other crops, including sugar beets, sugarcane, and rice, depending on what’s available locally.
How are sugarcane food containers, plates, and bowls made? Sugarcane has a long, fibrous stalk that contains a sweet juice. Sugar and many other things are made from the extracted juice, leaving the stalk behind. This leftover is called Bagasse, and it has traditionally been burned or discarded. Disposable sugarcane products are made using Bagasse, taking a previously unusable byproduct and turning it into a fully compostable plate, bowl, or food container for your restaurant.
What does post-consumer recycled material mean? Post-consumer means the materials are recycled after they are used by consumers and discarded. Compostable hot cups are partially (about 25%) made from post-consumer recycled materials. Not only is it sustainable to use recycled materials, buying products made from those recycled materials helps stimulate demand, meaning more will be recycled in the future.
What kinds of compostable products are available for use in my restaurant? Corn cold cups (PLA), post-consumer recycled fiber hot cups, sugarcane food containers, and high heat PLA cutlery are all examples of products you can put to use in your restaurant. Make sure any compostable product you buy is BPI certified, as this is the gold standard for compostable products. Checking for BPI certification helps you avoid “greenwashed” products that claim they are compostable but really aren’t.
Using commercially compostable products in your restaurant has a clear marketing benefit for your business because your customers will appreciate your decision to use them. If your restaurant has already decided that going green is a part of your business model, then compostable products are a must to round out your program. If you haven’t yet decided whether greening your restaurant makes sense, check out The Back Burner’s Going Green section for more information on everything food service is doing to meet the increasing demand for sustainability in food service.