Quick-service restaurants with Seattle locations are well aware the city's "foam ban" goes fully into effect July 1. That means throw-away packaging can no longer be made of expanded polystyrene and must be either recyclable or compostable.
Many QSRs already comply with bans of expanded polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, since a number of California municipalities have outlawed the material. But the Seattle ordinance is the first to require restaurants' disposable packaging and service ware to be recyclable or compostable.
QSRs have had two years to develop a plan to comply with the latter portion of the law, and some chains are better prepared than others, especially those with a sustainable packaging program. Many, like McDonald's, have focused on packaging with recycled content but will have to go even farther to source recyclable or compostable options.
Others are further along. Subway completed its move to recyclable service ware last year with the launch of its recyclable coffee cup. And fast casual Starbucks has positioned itself as a leader for other restaurants to follow. The company not only switched to recyclable and reusable cups but holds an annual Cup Summit for national brands and industry experts to collaborate on eco-friendly cup options.
But it seems doubtful that many national brands will use the Seattle ordinance to launch a compostable packaging lineup, said Holly Elmore, founder and CEO of Elemental Impact, a non-profit organization working to mobilize sustainable practices in the restaurant industry. But she is encouraged that such a move could be in the near future.
"They're thinking about it," she said, citing industry participation at the Cup Summit and in the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as examples.
The Sustainable Packaging Coalition — whose members include McDonald's and Starbucks as well as a long list of packaging and other foodservice suppliers — is an industry working group working to develop "a more robust environmental vision for packaging," according to its website.
While more QSRs are weighing eco-friendly packaging options, moving to a compostable lineup means overcoming a number of hurdles, Elmore said. Most brands are deterred by the cost. Although prices have come down in recent years, compostable packaging still costs more than traditional packaging.
Then there's the functionality issue. Early compostable service ware did not perform as well as foam or plastic containers or paper cups coated with polyethylene (PE). But recent advancements have led to the development of products like International Paper's ecotainer line, which includes a cup and lid for hot drinks that won't melt or warp.
Another deterrent is the amount of packaging that heads out that door. Since compostable service ware requires the high heat of commercial composting rather than home compost bins to degrade, few QSRs see the need to invest in packaging when they can't control its proper disposal, Elmore said.
But the primary deterrent may be the lack of availability of commercial composting facilities. Fewer than 100 commercial composters operate in the United States, with most concentrated in California and the Northeast.
"They think, 'What's the point of going with compostability if you don't have the composting option?," she said. "If it's being taken to the landfill, why bother."
Elmore suggests QSRs with locations in Seattle — or San Francisco which mandates composting and recycling — take the opportunity to launch a pilot program. Composting is not a fad but has caught the interest of a growing number of consumers. Demand will likely build quickly — even as early as the next two years, she predicts.
"When you start getting the consumer demanding (such packaging), the market's going to come to play," she said.
For QSRs looking at eco-friendly packaging, here is a look at two concepts at various stages of packaging plan that includes recyclable and/or compostable options.
Subway: Sustainable packaging program
Subway began developing its a sustainable packaging program in 2006 with a switch to paper and service ware with recycled content. Now its paper products are made from 100 percent recycled material, with its towel tissue containing 70 percent post-consumer content and its napkins 60 percent. recyclable coffee cups. The company's soup bowls, cups and cutlery are now recyclable, and its specialty pouches and bags are compostable, as are its paper products.
Elizabeth Stewart, Subway director of marketing and corporate responsibility, said the sustainable packaging program offers added value for eco-minded consumers, and is part of the company's broader efforts to be more 'green' and cut costs.
"Packaging is a visual cue for our customers," she said. "We are committed to try to make our packaging even more sustainable, particularly as new technology becomes available, making sure we have as much recycled content and compostability as possible."
Ultimately, the company would like all its packaging to be compostable, but has a number of hurdles to overcome, mainly issues of cost and functionality. Once it can source packaging that meets the company's standards on those points, the switch could come quickly, she said.
The company is adding other eco-friendly initiatives, including offering reusable bags and encouraging in-store recycling. Subway The company also is testing closed-loop recycling and composting programs. The closed-loop recycling program, developed in conjunction with Coca-Cola, will involved stores' collecting empty Coke bottles to ship to the manufacturer of its salad bowl and party platters, which contain 25 percent recycled soft drink bottles.
The company also is in the early stages of developing a pilot program for composting — modeled after efforts in place in its San Francisco stores, which mandates residents and businesses participate in its composting and recycling program. The pilots will likely go in a market near a commercial composter, Stewart said.
"That's the easiest way to go at first," she said.
Burgerville: Recyclable and compostable packaging
As small as it is, 39-unit Burgerville has become a poster child for sustainable initiatives. The company began its sustainable packaging initiative in 2007 after compostable packaging became more functional and affordable. Today, all of Burgerville's packaging and service ware is compostable and recyclable, including the International Paper's ecotainer hot cup, which is coated with a corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) coating rather than the traditional petroleum-based PE.
Burgerville has found the new packaging program to be a sound business decision, said the company's chief cultural officer, Jack Graves.
"Not only was it a great thing to do for the environment and to avoid putting more stuff into the landfills, but it saved us money," he said. "We've reduced garbage bills (significantly) and increased our bottom line by doing so."
The 39-unit chain saved money by implementing recycling programs in all its stores and composting programs in 20 — those with a commercial composter available to collect the compostable material. Burgerville reduced its garbage pickup from three times a week to one. Its stores' compostable materials are picked up three times a week at a much lower cost, Graves said.
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Developing an in-store composting and recycling program had its challenges, mainly staff and customer training. To help customers keep recyclable and compostable materials separate from trash, Burgerville's staff collects guests' trays and sorts everything. Graves said the company wants to offer composting in all its stores and is lobbying for more commercial composters in its markets.
"Commercial composting is the weak link at the moment," he said.
The company is pleased to be saving money on the program but appreciates even more its long lasting effects: Since the program started, many of the stores' employees and customers have been inspired to start composting at home.
"If nothing else, we've been a leader in the realm of actually teaching people a different way of managing their waste," he said. "Our guests see that as a contribution, and I think it adds value to our product."
PLA: Polylactic acid, a biodegradable polymer derived from renewable resources such as corn that replaces traditional petroleum-based coatings.
PE: Polyethylene, a petroleum-based coating traditionally used to waterproof paper cups.
Compostable service ware and packaging: Be aware not all products are made for all uses. Most are designed specifically for use with hot or cold products, not both.
Compostability: Compostable plastics must meet the Biodegradable Products Institute standards for compostability, including being able to degrade in 90 days in a commercial composting facility. Most of these products are not designed for in-vessel or home composting. International Paper Co. says its ecotainer product line has been successfully tested by a third party for in-vessel and home composting.
Christa is editor of QSRweb.com and contributes to FastCasual.com and PizzaMarketplace.com. She has experience in the restaurant industry as well as 15 years as a journalist.