Better for the Planet, Our Health, and the Economy
As a long-time plastic and waste reduction advocate, I've had a hard time ordering take-out or delivery. It's not just the waste that bothers me when I see single-use food packaging, it's knowing that things used for a matter of minutes and then thrown away represents all kinds of threats not only to the environment, but also to our health and businesses' bottom line.
Then COVID-19 happened – and caused a dramatic increase in the consumption of single-use plastics from PPEs and food packaging. Since the pandemic began, U.S. online shopping and take-out orders have increased 78% – the highest reported increase in the world. However, oddly enough, the number of reusable and returnable cup and container options has – luckily! – been growing.
This growth in reuse systems is evident in cities across the U.S.. For example, in my hometown of San Francisco, in the last year it became possible for me to order take-out in reusable containers from several of my favorite Bay Area restaurants through Dispatch Goods, either directly from the restaurant or through Doordash. When visiting family in NYC, I can get lovely salads to go from Just Salad – and Deliver Zero is partnering with a number of restaurants in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. And while my family in Durham N.C. are divided by the Tar Heels and Blue Devils rivalry, they all agree that ordering take-out in reusable containers from restaurants that partner with Durham Green to Go is much better than the throw-away option. And thankfully, I can now get a coffee to-go in a reusable mug in many cities, like when I visit my brother in Boston, where Usefull recently launched.
At UPSTREAM, we are tracking the growth of reuse in cities all across the country. It's possible to borrow a reusable cup or container in a variety of on deposit or lending programs. Even groceries and consumer products are being offered in returnable/refillable containers thanks to many emerging reuse companies. The concomitant growth in reusable and refillable return systems gives me hope that the throw away culture is changing.
Why Single-use Packaging is Not Good for the Environment
Since the birth of the throw-away culture in the 1960s, single-use food packaging has largely replaced reusable and refillable packaging in the U.S., and it is rapidly increasing across the globe. Taking another first place, the U.S. is also the biggest generator of packaging waste – 82.2 million metric tons (mt) in 2018- equivalent to 514 billion cars. Efforts to find "sustainable packaging" materials to feed the throw away economy are challenging since each comes with regrettable consequences.
Paper products, like napkins, plates, and food containers are filling overflowing garbage cans. These products come from oxygen-producing, carbon-capturing trees – our first defense in the climate crisis. Cutting them down means habitat loss and increasing species extinction, increasing water pollution, and worse air quality.
Aluminum is quickly becoming the material of choice because it is highly recyclable. But with the average recycled content of a can at 73% a fair amount of virgin material is still being used. The mining and transformation of raw bauxite into aluminum is energy intensive and releases perfluorocarbons that are 9,200 times more harmful than CO2 in global warming impacts.
Plastic is not a great choice, either. It's highly littered and hardly recyclable. One truckload per minute of plastic enters the ocean. Throughout its lifecycle, from the extraction of hydrocarbons through the processing to ultimate disposal, plastics are energy intensive, polluting, health-harming, and contribute to climate change. Roughly two-thirds of all plastic produced has been released to the environment and remains there causing harm. And it turns out that the U.S. is the biggest plastic waste generator and polluter in the world.
For years, communities have struggled to find alternatives to plastic that are better for the environment, but this quest has proven elusive. They are learning the hard way that "recyclable" foodware doesn't really get recycled. We've paid for recycling for years while our dirty paper and plastic got exported to become pollution in other countries – or it gets collected in the recycling bin only to end up in local landfills or incinerators where it pollutes our communities.
Compostable packaging some believe to be the sustainable panacea. But compostables are not really working well in the waste stream. Bioplastic compostable products, like cups and bags, get mixed up with and contaminate recycling. Only products certified to be compostable (bearing 3rd party labeling) are designed to degrade in commercial compost although many people mistake plant-based products with those designed for compost. Commercial composters largely don't want plastics made from plants, even the ones that are certified to meet lab standards for compostability, because they don't degrade quickly enough outside the lab and contaminate the compost. So too does paper and fiberware that is coated with forever-polluting PFAS chemicals. All packaging, even if it degrades in compost, dilutes the quality of the compost because it adds no nutrient value. Composters mostly want food and yard waste. Some accept technically compostable food packaging due to pressure from cities that are looking to divert waste from landfill. But they end up with piles of less valuable, dirty compost.
Reusable packaging: a win for the planet
Life cycle analysis – the footprint of a product through its lifetime, from production to disposal – generally views environmental impacts through as many as 14 categories, like raw materials extraction, manufacturing and transportation impacts, greenhouse gas and climate impacts, water and energy consumption, aquatic toxicity, and disposal related impacts. Through any of these measures, reusable products ultimately out-perform the disposable options.
Based on UPSTREAM's review of the life cycle analysis of reusable versus disposable take-out foodware, reusables are better for the environment after just a minimal number of uses:
- Cups, plates and bowls: after 10-50 uses
- Clamshells: after 15-20 uses
- Utensils: after 2-4 uses
Reuse is Better for our Health – Especially Without Plastic
Many people want to eliminate plastic because of the impacts to our oceans and upsetting scenes of plastics' harm to turtles and whales. But a more personal impact comes from the health threats associated with plastics and chemicals in food packaging. The harm, including lowered fertility rates for men and women, developmental and neurological impairment, and elevated cancers and other chronic diseases, is harder to see and much widely recognized. That's why UPSTREAM is collaborating with Zero Waste Europe and GAIA in the UNWRAPPED project to share a Call to Action about the risks of plastics and chemicals in food packaging:
Non-plastic reusables are not only better for the environment, they are also safer for human health. When made from glass, stainless steel, and ceramic, the main package is inert. The threat of chemicals or microplastics migrating into the food or beverages we consume is far lower with non-plastic reusables.
Reusables Are Also Better for the Economy
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a 20% shift to reusables presents a $10 billion dollar business savings. On the ground, programs like ReThink Disposable are providing this case. The program had over 160 food service businesses participate, and they found that every single one saved money by switching to some reusables in their operations – on average between $3,000- $22,000 per year.
Switching to reuse for take-out also reduces litter which will in turn save taxpayer dollars. More than $11.5 billion is spent every year in the U.S. to clean up litter on the streets, in storm drains and in rivers, and the most common objects found during beach and street litter clean-ups are food and beverage packaging.
Reuse also creates good local jobs. According to EcoCycle, there are 30 times more job opportunities with reuse than in landfilling and incinerating our waste.
Reduce is Also a Win
At UPSTREAM, we're working to get laws enacted that pave the way both for reducing and reusing. To reduce single-use in food service, we've launched the Skip the Stuff campaign which would require restaurants and online ordering apps to ask first before including the straws, utensils, condiment packets, and napkins that most of us already have at home or at the office.
So when you choose to Skip the Stuff, or you participate in a reusable cup or container program for your next take-out meal or beverage, you can feel good knowing that choosing to reduce and reuse is safer for our health, better for the planet, and saves business money. That's a real win!
How to Become a Reuse Solutioneer
People can spend their entire days and weeks trying to live a plastic-free lifestyle, but most of us don't have that kind of time. The problem is that we don't have a lot of choices in how the things we want to buy and use are packaged. The real solutions come from driving systems change by putting pressure on companies to offer us the products we want without the throw-away packaging.
You can drive change by supporting businesses that are doing things right. Here are some ways to support reuse businesses:
- Call on restaurants to Reopen with Reuse: add your name to the statement asking our beloved restaurants to reopen with nontoxic reuse.
- Find reuse businesses in your area and support them.
- Support restaurants that serve on real plates, cups, and dishes.
- Opt out of unnecessary accessories like disposable silverware and straws when you order take-out - #SkiptheStuff.
You can also take action now to get policies enacted that require packaging to be less toxic and more reusable.
- Email your federal legislators and ask them to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act where plastic packaging producers are required to reduce and reuse packaging.
- Ask lawmakers to take action to protect public health by signing the UNWRAPPED project Call to Action.
- Start a reusable city coalition in your community by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Parashar, N, Hait, S. (2021, Plastics in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic: Protector or polluter? Sci of the Total Env 759/144274.