The Restaurant Trash Problem Is Actually a Major Opportunity

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Here’s a small silver lining alert. The restaurant industry’s urgent shift to off-premises meal formats has created an urgent need to combat packaging waste. And people are finally starting to do something about it.

Let’s not sugar-coat the issue too much. Packaging waste is a major problem, one to which restaurants contribute greatly. Prior to the pandemic, some cities were taking steps to reduce or ban single-use plastics, and materials like polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) were out of vogue. All that changed when the pandemic forced the entire restaurant industry to rely on to-go orders for sales and regulations and company policies began banning the use of reusable containers for health and safety reasons.

In fairness to many restaurants, alternative forms of packaging (compostable, reusable, etc.) are expensive, and can even require operational changes for the staff. It should not be expected that these businesses suddenly come up with strategies for more eco-friendly packaging, particularly not at a time when many still struggle to keep the lights on and many more have shut down forever.

But those that can explore alternative packing options should, and of late we have seen some encouraging developments in this direction:

  • Last week, Just Salad announced its famed reusable bowl program would be available for digital orders. The company also highlighted, in its latest sustainability report, its Zero Waste delivery program, which integrates reusable packaging into the delivery order process.
  • Sweetgreen last week announced its plans to go carbon neutral by 2027. Details were pretty high-level, but the company already uses compostable packaging for its to-go orders, so it would not be surprising to see some additional developments in this area in the future.
  • Just Salad was also in the news last month for the launch of its new meal kit service that’s free of both extraneous portion sizes and plastic packaging.
  • At the end of 2020, Burger King announced a partnership with circular packaging service Loop to pilot reusable food and beverage containers this year.
  • Ditto for McDonald’s, which struck a similar deal with Loop in the second half of 2020. The mega-chain has other circular solutions in place, too, like its Recup system in Germany.
  • There are plenty of other notable efforts being made here, from individual restaurants, like Zuni in California, to companies like NYC-based DeliverZero, which partners with restaurants to fulfill delivery meals with reusable containers. Additionally, Dishcraft Robotics lends some automation to the process of collecting and cleaning reusables at restaurants.

The bigger point here is that while we have a massive packaging problem on our hands right now, we also have a massive opportunity to change that and introduce new innovations in the process. Those innovations could simultaneously curb our single-use plastics problem while also addressing things like food qualitytamper-resistant packaging, and other elements that have surfaced over the last year. The public’s appetite for to-go orders is not going away. That means the opportunity to change our relationship to packaging is around for the long-haul, too.

Innovation won’t come as a one-takeout-box-to-rule-them-all format. Instead, what we’re more likely to see is collaboration among restaurants, material scientists, package designers, and many others. Nor will the issue be solved next week. Weaning an entire industry off single-use plastics will be a complex, costly undertaking that will probably meet a lot of resistance and a lot of failures.

None of that is a reason to ignore the packaging problem and opportunity. Based on developments from the above companies, many are already willing to start changing the system for everyone.



Restaurant Tech ‘Round the Web

White Castle’s recent ghost kitchen effort in Orlando generated so much demand the location had to close will not reopen until spring, when the chain finds a location better suited to meet that demand.

Food delivery search engine MealMe has closed a $900,000 pre-seed round led by Palm Drive Capital. Slow Ventures and CP Ventures also participated in the round.

For the second year in a row, the National Restaurant Association’s annual conference is cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, the Association will host a series of virtual events throughout the rest of 2021.


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