Plastic-Free Eateries

How restaurant and food business owner/operators
can reduce plastic in food prep, service, and delivery

What’s the problem?

There’s so much plastic served along with food at restaurants and included with take-out orders. Some of the most common plastic items include:

  • Plastic wrap
  • Plastic utensils
  • Plastic straws
  • Plastic bibs
  • Plastic to-go containers
  • Plastic storage containers
  • Coffee cup lids
  • Drink stirrers

Plastic litter from takeout orders — including cups, plates, cutlery, and straws — is a primary source of the approximately 20 million metric tons of plastic pollution and counting that sweeps into the natural environment annually. Outdoors, plastics break apart into small pieces rather than break down benignly, harming wildlife and harming human health. More than 561 billion individual plastic utensils are used by Americans every year. These items are not easily recycled and like all plastic stuff, they most often end up in our environment, landfills, and incinerators. There, they leak harmful substances into the Earth and our bodies while they break up into tiny pieces, and also release climate-warming greenhouse gasesThe use of polystyrene foam has serious health consequences, and must be eliminated for a restaurant to be designated as Certified Green Restaurant. Like all plastics, polystyrene foam is not biodegradable.

Plastics are rarely recycled and reusables are the solution. Less than 10% of all plastics ever made have been recycled. Because making new plastic is cheap and recycled plastic materials tend to be lower quality, there’s less market incentive to recycle. Instead, plastic waste is often landfilled, incinerated, and/or shipped to developing countries that don’t have the infrastructure to manage such an influx of trash, and many are now refusing to take it. While governments and waste haulers can economically benefit from these waste shipping arrangements, the communities into which waste is forced suffer from the physical and mental consequences of exposure to plastic and other trash.

Be part of the solution

As a business owner, there’s a lot you can do to make it easier for your eco-conscious customers to avoid getting a side of plastic with their meal and contribute to the larger cultural shift needed to solve the plastic pollution crisis.

#SkipTheStuff by requiring takeout and delivery “extras” — like single-use utensils, straws, condiments, napkins, and more — to be provided only upon request. If your customers need them, they can get them. If they don’t, no need to waste.⁣ Require food and drink to be served to dine-in customers on reusable foodware. 

Check out the UP Scorecard, a revolutionary free online resource that can help restaurants, concert and sports venues, and other businesses choose plastic-free and sustainable packaging for food and drinks. The UP Scorecard is the result of an unprecedented cross-industry collaboration of leading foodservice companies, environmental NGOs, and technical experts.

Purchasing

Cocktails

The first step is to 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 all of the plastic items you use. Investigate plastic-free alternatives and costs for each of the items (see section below). Ask some key questions: Is this item (i.e. coffee stirrers) necessary? Is it available in a reusable material? Is it available in something other than plastic?  Check out these helpful resources and tips:

  • Upstream’s Single-use to Reuse Savings Calculator can help you understand the costs and benefits of switching to reusables.
  • Learn about the cash subsidy program to switch from single-use plastic to reusables and restaurant resources from Plastic Free Restaurants.
  • Learn about the best plastic-free foodware options and how to avoid greenwashing when making new product decisions with Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Foodware Guide 2.0.
  • Buy in bulk whenever possible.
  • Buy with as little packaging as possible or packaging free, if available.
  • Invest in stainless steel food containers with lids for storing and preparing food, or participate in an existing plastic-free delivery option like Dispatch Goods, Usefull, or Vessel. (See Plastic Free Restaurants for a list of plastic-free delivery options available to offer your customers.)
  • 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

Plastic Free Restaurant
  • Examine 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 for bringing your own mug or container?”)
  • Consider staff concerns and suggestions.

Educate customers

  • Let them know about the plastic pollution crisis and how you’re addressing it.
  • Clip an information card on your menus explaining that your business is committed to working with Plastic Pollution Coalition 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, for example).
  • When customers pay, ask them to fill out a short survey on how they view your new initiatives. Offer the survey with a wooden pencil instead of a plastic pen.
  • Install a collection box for the surveys in a convenient location.
  • Ask customers to spread the word about your efforts via social media, community groups, local media, etc. Suggested hashtags include: #PlasticPollutes #SkipTheStuff #RefillRevolution #UseRealStuff #MakeRealStuff #ThinkReusable #PlasticFree #NoPlasticStraws #BreakFreeFromPlastic

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

Next steps

“Many restaurants and businesses are already making a difference, such as ditching plastic straws, providing reusable utensils, plates, and cups, accepting reusables that customers bring, and offering reusable or plastic-free take-out containers. But there is more that can be done. Leading by example in making the changes towards becoming plastic free and advocating in support of legislation that reduces plastic production and waste is the most valuable and effective thing a business or restaurant can do to help reduce plastic pollution.”- Reusable LA

  • Consider selling branded items such as:
    • Double-walled stainless steel cups
    • Bamboo utensils
    • Take-out stainless steel containers of different sizes
  • Switch to reusables with the Plastic Free Restaurants subsidy program.
  • Enroll in your city or county’s green business certification program.
  • Be part of Surfrider Foundation’s 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 Reusable Food Serviceware Guide for restaurant supplies is available free online.
  • 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.
  • For inspiration and support, connect to food businesses that have already gone plastic free; check out Plastic Pollution Coalition Business Members, like Butcher & Sons, Revival Ice Cream, and Meal In A Jar.
  • Review Beyond Plastics’ “Hold the Plastic, Please” guide for eateries, which offers practical advice, tools. resources, and case studies of two restaurants that have successfully reduced their plastic use.
  • Consider getting your business audited by The Blue Standard, a project of Oceanic Global, to commit to practices that minimize your production of plastic and other wastes.
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