PPC’s Easy Guide

Plastic-Free Eats

How restaurant owner/operators can reduce plastic in food preparation and service


What’s the problem?

Plastic is a substance the earth cannot digest. Neither can people or animals.

Plastic litter from takeout ordersincluding cups, plates, cutlery, and straws — is a prime source of the estimated 269,000 tons of plastic pollution swept into waterways and oceans, where they partially degrade, harming marine life and affecting human health;

More than 100 million pieces of plastic utensils are used by Americans every day. They can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, leaking harmful substances into the earth while they are breaking down;

500 million plastic straws are thrown away in the U.S. alone every day;

The use of polystyrene foam has serious health consequences, and must be eliminated to be designated as a Green Certified restaurant. It is not biodegradable;

Recycling waste materials is better than landfilling them, but the best option is to not generate waste at all;

Less than 14 percent of plastic packaging, the fastest-growing segment of the packaging industry in the U.S. gets recycled.

Get started on the solution

Audit what you purchase and what actually gets used by your customers, from delivery and food preparation to storage and disposal. Include monthly order size and costs for the following items:

plastic wrap
plastic utensils
plastic straws
plastic bibs
plastic to-go containers
plastic storage containers
coffee cup lids
drink stirrers

Investigate alternatives and costs for each of these items (see section below). Ask some key questions: Is this item (i.e. coffee stirrers) necessary? Is it available in anything other than plastic?


  • Buy in bulk whenever possible.

  • Buy with as little packaging as possible or packaging free, if available;

  • Use reusable dish ware for on-site dining (cups, plates, bowls, portion cups, cutlery) if dishwashing is an option;

  • Invest in stainless steel food containers with lids for storing and preparing food;

  • Eliminate unnecessary disposable items, like straws, drink stirrers, toothpicks, and lids for cups, or make available upon request only; 

  • Use real plates, cutlery and glasses, and cloth napkins, if possible;

  • Do dishwashing and laundry on site;

  • Provide glass or stainless steel water dispensers for self-serve or refill pitchers;

  • Where possible, shorten your supply chain to eliminate as much packaging as possible;

  • Be creative with your to-go dishes. Use glass mason jars for salads or soups and offer a refund if the glass is returned, or an option to pay a deposit. Or provide food in clay pots for orders.

Setting up

  • Provide ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, relish etc. in self-serve, bulk dispensers.  

  • Use refillable containers made of glass, ceramic or stainless steel for salt and pepper, sugar, oil and vinegar, hot sauce etc.

  • Put containers for stainless steel cutlery on tables or at a self-serve station.

  • Change your restaurant receipts to use BPA-free paper, or email receipts if requested.

Food storage

  • Eliminate excess packaging wherever possible. Tell suppliers you do not want it.  

  • Use butcher, waxed and parchment paper wherever possible instead of plastic wrap.

  • Eliminate use of all polystyrene foam.

  • Create back-of-house composting and recycling.

  • Create front-of-house recycling.

Implement changes

  • Which items are still being requested?

  • Establish staff policies, protocol and training (i.e. always ask customers, “Is this for here or to-go? Did you bring your own mug or container? Do you know about our discounts?”)

  • Consider staff concerns and suggestions.

Educate Customers — Let them know about the plastic pollution problem and how you’re addressing it.

  • Clip an information card on your menus explaining that your business is committed to working with PPC to reduce single-use, disposable plastics at your establishment.

  • Offer financial incentives for customers who bring reusable cups, containers and utensils (5-10 cents off purchases of hot drinks, 25 cents for take-home containers).

  • When customers pay, ask them to fill out a short survey on how they view your new initiatives. Hand them the survey with a pencil.

  • Install a collection box for the surveys in a convenient location.

  • Ask them to spread the word via social media, community groups, local media etc. Suggested hashtags include: #refillrevolution #userealstuff #make realstuff #thinkreusable #plasticfree

Track Costs and Responses

  • Review long-term vs short-term financial projections on a regular basis to evaluate the changes you’ve instituted.

  • Consider the external costs of waste management or reduced waste created, etc.

  • Implement customer requests and comments where possible. Let them know you’ve done so.   

Next Steps

  • Consider selling branded items such as:

    • Double-walled stainless steel cups

    • Bamboo utensils

    • Take-out stainless steel containers of different sizes

  • Get active with your community’s chamber of commerce or other business groups to encourage others to move toward zero waste, and adopt measures to reduce single-use, disposable plastics.

  • Be part of the Ocean Friendly Restaurants Campaign.

  • Contact Clean Water Action’s ReThink Disposable project, a technical assistance program that helps food businesses implement best practices to reduce waste and cut costs by minimizing disposable product usage.  Their Resusable Foodware Service Guide for restaurant supplies is available free on-line.



Where to find alternative resources

Pans and Accessories WebrestaurantAlibabaLife Without Plastic

Storage Jars with lids
WebrestaurantFilmore ContainerGlassloc containersRefrigerator Crispers, Cuchinasafe (lids)  

Gravity Bin Dispensers


Glass or stainless steel self-serve water containers:

Reusable alternative wrap options include: 
AbeegoBeeswrapUnbleached Butcher paper, waxed or parchment paper

Reusable Foodware Service Guide from Clean Water Action

Plastic-Free Campus Manual from Post Landfill Action Network

Marine Debris and Plastic Reduction Toolkit
Source Reduction Resources

Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Product Guide for Food Service