"Reuse Wins", released by Upstream, is a report that shows how a new reuse economy is emerging to replace the use of single-use products in food service. The key findings in the report draw from life-cycle studies that compare the environmental impacts of disposables versus reusables, and project the potential cost savings to business and local government from transitioning to a new reuse economy.
The problem with today’s “one-way, throw-away” food-service economy
- Nearly 1 trillion individual pieces of disposable foodware and packaging used by US restaurants and food service businesses. This breaks down as 21% for on-site dining and 79% for take-out and delivery.
- $24 billion spent by restaurants and food-service businesses on disposables each year.
- Nearly 9 million tons equals the total weight of all the disposables used – equivalent to the weight of 25 Empire State Buildings.
- $6 billion spent by businesses and city governments on solid waste management costs attributable to disposable food packaging.
- Roughly 20 billion pieces of litter are from disposable food-service packaging.
- This creates significant climate pollution, energy use, water consumption, resource extraction, waste generation, litter generation and plastic pollution.
The solution is with tomorrow’s new reuse economy
- 86% of disposables avoided through 100% of on-site dining being disposable-free and new reuse services for take-out and delivery expanded to all US cities and urban areas.
- 841 billion disposable food packaging items avoided meaning that 7.5 million tons of materials would be averted annually.
- $5 billion saved by food service businesses from no longer procuring disposables for on-site dining.
- $5.1 billion saved by businesses and city governments on solid waste management costs attributable to disposable food packaging.
- 17 billion pieces of litter prevented through new reuse systems. The reusable products (cups, containers, cutlery, bags, etc) have value – like a deposit, or a charge if not returned – that ensures these products make their way back into the system.
- 193,000 jobs created in the new reuse economy for food service.
- Significantly reduced climate pollution, energy use, water consumption, resource extraction, waste generation, litter generation and plastic pollution.
“The food service industry’s reliance on disposables wastes money and the planet’s resources, while causing harm to communities,” said Miriam Gordon, Policy Director for Upstream and principal author of the report. “But the good news is there’s a new reuse economy emerging that’s disrupting the current disposable paradigm and replacing it with something better.”
"Reuse helps keep the disposables out of local waste streams and litter off the streets –– saving businesses and residents money,” said Sego Jackson, City of Seattle's Strategic Advisor for Waste Prevention and Product Stewardship who reviewed the report. “From a local government perspective, reusable food service reduces hard-to-recycle products at the source, helping cities reduce costs associated with waste management.”
Key environmental take-aways:
- Reusable foodware beats single-use alternatives through every environmental measure (climate, water, land use, waste, pollution, etc.). Reusables always hit a break-even point where they outperform the disposables, and the benefits to the environment accrue with each additional use past that point.
- The break even points range from 2-122 times. With materials like steel, glass and ceramics, they can be used thousands of times.
- Reuse protects the climate. Over their life-cycle, reusables have lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to disposable alternatives. For example, the CO2 impacts of disposable paper, plastic, and bioplastics are 3 to 10 times greater than reusable ceramic, stainless steel and glass cups.
- Water consumption for washing reusables is minimal when using commercial dishwashers that are highly efficient. The disposables have a greater water consumption footprint due to all the upstream production impacts than reusables.
Key take-aways for restaurants and food-service providers:
- Making the switch from single-use to reuse for on-site dining always ends up saving money - 100% of the time. And that’s after accounting for any capital costs for purchasing or leasing additional dishwasher capacity and any added labor costs.
- Nearly all restaurants that have transitioned to reusables have done it without changing their dishwashing set-up or increasing labor costs.
- Reusables increase customer and employee satisfaction, generate valuable customer data, build brand loyalty and create opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors to create and scale the new reuse economy.
Key take-aways for community leaders and government:
- Reuse services create infrastructure and jobs in the community that cannot be outsourced. Disposables create jobs outside the community where natural resources are mined, and disposable food service products are manufactured or disposed.
- Reusable foodware reduces litter and waste management costs for local businesses and government and eliminates litter on streets and in local waterways.
- Reuse infrastructure helps to achieve zero waste and climate goals.
Today, much of institutional and fast casual dining – and virtually all takeout and delivery – happens using disposable foodware. And all those takeout containers, bags, boxes, condiment packets, plastic utensils, cold and hot cups and lids, and napkins add up. Nearly 1 trillion disposable food service products are used each year in the United States.
Unfortunately, these disposables come with costs – costs to the environment from natural resource extraction to climate impacts to plastic pollution; costs to food-service businesses from the ongoing procurement and waste management of disposables; and costs to governments and taxpayers from solid waste costs and litter cleanup. These costs also represent lost opportunities to create better systems for getting people what they want without all the waste.
But the good news is that there’s a new reuse economy emerging for food service that has the potential to completely disrupt our current disposable food-service paradigm and replace it with something better.
The New Reuse Economy for Food Service
Reuse for on-site dining
Whether you’re dining at McDonald’s or a trendy new fast casual eatery, disposables for on-site fast-food dining are the norm. This is because a prevailing misconception is that disposables are cheaper than reusables. But this argument doesn’t hold up in practice. The data from hundreds of case studies shows that making the switch from single-use to reuse for on-site dining ends up saving money 100% of the time. And that’s after accounting for any capital costs for purchasing or leasing additional dishwasher capacity and any added labor costs.
Reuse for take-out and delivery
With take-out and delivery, it might seem like the only options are between disposable paper or plastic, but scores of new businesses are emerging to offer reuse B to B (to C) services and solutions to hack all this take-out packaging waste. Their services are easy to use, accessible, affordable, fun and convenient, and they are revolutionizing how businesses do take-out by offering a circular system for collection, washing and sanitizing, and restocking reusable food-serviceware. Food-service businesses can contract with these “reuse service-providers” for the amount and types of reusable to-go ware they desire.