As American consumers, we love to eat out which is why it’s no surprise that the restaurant industry is a decent contributor to our waste stream as a country. According to some estimates, a single restaurant can produce 150,000 pounds of waste in a year. The Environmental Protection Agency also says that food waste and packaging from all industries account for 45 percent of all waste materials in U.S. landfills.
As a result, consumers and elected officials are pushing for legislation to decrease the amount of waste generated, which will affect the restaurant industry. Broadly speaking, waste can be divided into two categories: material waste, like single-use plastics or to-go containers, and food waste. Both types are subject to new regulations designed to reduce environmental impact. Restaurant owners must be diligent in tracking these rules to understand the potential impact on their business. Without proper preparation, restaurant execs could encounter unexpected disruptions to their operations. However, with careful consideration and implementation, restaurants have the opportunity to become more sustainable while still maintaining a solid bottom line.
New legislation surrounding single-use plastic has surged across the United States. Operators should expect this trend to continue to grow; the time to start looking for single-use plastic alternatives is now, as things like cutlery, straws and to-go containers are at risk for regulatory bans. For example, in Hawaii, state legislators are debating SB522 which would prohibit the purchase, sale, use or distribution of single-use plastic packaging items. Maryland could be the first state to ban expanded polystyrene food service packaging. Washington is considering legislation that would outlaw thin plastic carryout bags. These are just a handful of the more recent cases of taking measures to prevent unnecessary plastic consumption.
In addition to single-use plastic, there is some debate amongst the industry on the use of styrofoam and its recyclability. The EPA states that Americans throw away 25 billion styrofoam cups per year, many of which end up polluting our oceans or become toxic to the environment when sent to the landfill. Some claim that styrofoam is recyclable, but the U.S. does not have the infrastructure to recycle it easily. Cities including Los Angeles, Baltimore and Madison, WI have implemented foam recycling programs, but still, not everyone is on board. While some may assert that styrofoam can be recycled safely, most sustainability experts agree that it is better to be safe than sorry and to ban styrofoam altogether in a search for a more eco-friendly alternative.
The restaurant community also faces potential issues from China’s recent ban on recyclables. China used to be the primary recycling destination for a large portion of the United States commodities for decades, yet due to overly high contamination levels, China is significantly reducing the amount of United States recycling it accepts. This has posed a large challenge for companies in the U.S. as they work to reduce recycling contamination and to find supplementary buyers. Some states, such as Florida, are reacting with bills to address contamination levels within their municipalities and the impact it has on haulers and citizens alike. Naturally, this will have a potentially large impact on the bottom line for restaurants who don’t get ahead and work with their staff and consumers to avoid contamination.
With consumers and governmental bodies examining issues from all sides, restaurant operators should proactively look for ways to phase out problematic items before laws are into effect. Some corporations are already doing so; McDonald's has committed to making 100 percent of its packaging for consumers’ food from renewable, recycled, or certified sources by 2025. If restaurant owners work towards eliminating single-use plastics and styrofoam from their operations, they can avoid potential future penalty fees as these new regulations emerge.
In addition to material items, food waste in the United States is also being scrutinized. According to a recent ReFED report, the U.S. restaurant sector generates 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, the full cost of which is more than $25 billion. Several governmental organizations are crafting legislation for this growing concern. In recent years, municipalities in France, Italy, Denmark and the United States have taken stances against food waste through mandatory donation or composting laws. For example, in Austin, Texas, all businesses that serve food are legally prohibited from throwing away scraps and leftovers. Instead, they are urged to compost or donate unused food materials.
Another movement in decreasing food waste has been the standardization of food labels. There is very little oversight or clarity regarding the use of date labels. Policy experts believe unclear language leads to excess waste. As a result, California implemented legislation in 2017 to encourage the food industry to use one of two possible labels: "best if used by" for quality and "use by or freeze by" for safety. While this legislation did not mandate standardized labeling, it enables lawmakers to begin the process of implementing more stringent laws should the need arise.
Overall, the waste and recycling industry is always changing. Statewide legislation is making strides towards sustainability, but can be confusing to keep up with in real time. Set Google alerts for sustainability and legislation news, and bookmark resources like this map by the Green Restaurant Association, which covers mandatory environmental legislation for restaurants in each state. Reducing environmental impact will take time, but if done correctly can not only have a positive impact on guest perception and sales, but create cost savings to the bottom line as well.