Restaurant eating during the pandemic is upending the movement to eliminate single-use plastic

With restaurants closed for in-person dining, food delivery—and the waste associated with those take-out orders—has skyrocketed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But even when we can eat out again, single-use plastics will still be prevalent, posing a huge threat to the environment as we revert to a world full of disposables.

As restaurants and bars begin to reopen and business owners think about how to serve patrons as safely as possible, the CDC recommends they use disposable items, from menus and condiments to napkins, utensils, and dishes. Texas is going a step further and actually requiringthat dine-in restaurants provide single-use condiments and use disposable menus that are “new for each patron.”

The rise of take-out food, and the use of disposables that allow restaurants to reopen, have allowed people to support local businesses, but Dune Ives, managing director of Lonely Whale, is worried about the longer-term impacts of this reliance on single-use plastics, especially as waste management facilities get overwhelmed. “If this behavior continues, this pattern continues, of purchasing, I think we’re going to start to see a decrease in the kinds of plastics that could be accepted in waste facilities,” she says.

Ives doesn’t fault the consumer, though, who may be trying to support their neighborhood spot or simply feed themselves if they can’t cook every day. “People will follow what the market asks them to do,” she says. “And regardless of what our self-reported attitudes, awareness, and behaviors are, when there is a shift towards packaging, especially in restaurant environments to-go, that is in alignment with our values, we will follow.” It can’t fall on the individual to make the right choice every time, she adds, especially if they aren’t given any other choices besides disposable plastic packaging.

It’s difficult to parse out how much of our waste is made up of to-go food packaging. Natha Freiburg Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, says in a statement to Fast Company that “paper and plastic single-use foodservice packaging items make up less than 2% of discards” from municipal solid waste. “With a footprint of this size, it’s unlikely that even massive production increases will raise that number,” she says. She did add, “No matter how small a piece of the waste stream is occupied by foodservice packaging, it is still a priority to close the loop,” and noted that the industry is committed to ensuring that takeout packaging is recycled or composted (though composting isn’t necessarily the easy solution it sounds like).

Packaging in general, including from food and beverages along with medications and cosmetic products, accounts for nearly 30% of all municipal waste. In 2017, that meant 80.1 million tons of trash just from packaging, according to the EPA. Food and packaging containers together account for almost 45% of landfill materials in the U.S.

The coronavirus pandemic has already rolled back plastic bag bans, and Ives says the plastics industry has pushed rhetoric that single-use plastics are one way to keep us safe, despite scientific evidence that the coronavirus may linger on plastic surfaces for up to three days. Lonely Whale is in the process of putting together a national survey, much like it did before its #HydrateLike campaign that addressed the use of plastic water bottles, to see how the pandemic has influenced people’s thinking about single-use plastics.

Ives assumes it’s not people’s values that have changed, but the fact that people lack access to alternatives to single-use plastics while sheltering in place. She herself has asked restaurants in her home of Olympia, Washington, to use her reusable containers for take-out orders. “Some are actually saying yes, so they’re running them through their dishwasher before they put the food in,” she says, suggesting that as an option for people who want to reduce their take-out food waste right now. “They may still say no, but you’ll never know if you don’t ask the question.” She also advises people to seek out restaurants and businesses that align with their values, such as ones that provide compostable containers instead of plastic or polystyrene.

Ultimately, though, she hopes to see some innovation from restaurants and the packaging industry to avoid this waste altogether. “Even when we know the right path forward, we don’t always take it. I think that’s part of being human,” she says. “If you depend on me to save the planet, I will disappoint you. This is where market and behavior change has to come together so it’s easier for us to make the right choice.”


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