The Return of Single-Use Plastic Packaging: Restaurants Try to Balance Experience, Profit and Waste
Reflecting changes wrought by COVID-19 on a wide range of health, safety and environmental issues, single-use plastic packaging is seeing a return of use within restaurant and food retail settings. This occurs despite a heightened pre-pandemic interest among sustainably minded consumers in decreasing the use of such plastics. As noted by the Wall Street Journal in a recent article, "The world’s reopening from coronavirus lockdowns is wrapped in plastic, most of which will never be recycled. The virus has given a new foothold to single-use plastics previously criticized for the waste they generate. To stem transmission of Covid-19, bars are serving drinks in plastic cups, supermarkets are wrapping once loose fruits and baked goods in plastic and offices are adding plastic coverings to everything from doorknobs to elevator buttons."
In terms of take-out packaging used in food service, an Eater.com article describes how in Seattle take-away orders have become critical business for restaurants during the pandemic and operators are struggling to take on the added costs of packaging and associated sustainability issues. To keep up with rising demand, Seattle restaurants have adapted with new offerings, including take-home kits, to-go cocktails and thoughtful, sustainable improvements to take-out packaging (such as compostable utensils and containers) to help consumers enjoy the experience of eating restaurant food at home.
The upswing in demand for single-use plastics occurs despite the fact that not long ago our Sustainability 2019: Beyond Business as Usual report found that following decades of training, Americans are now “aspirational recyclers," and while confusion and frustration were growing facets of recycling (mainly due to China shutting down recycling waste imports), social and cultural concern for single-use plastic had exploded as a consumer issue, with many consumers — even less engaged ones — interested in reducing how much plastic they use. Our Sustainability 2019 report found that of those 58% of consumers at an average level of sustainable lifestyle and beliefs (what The Hartman Group calls "Mid-level" consumers within the World of Sustainability), 75% said they "try to limit how much I purchase to reduce waste and depletion of natural resources."
To keep up with these beliefs, restaurants operating during the pandemic are trying to be mindful of the consumer experience while also making ends meet — a tension exacerbated for businesses attempting to continue sustainability efforts. While consumers focus on the functionality and environmental impact of packaging, the economic cost of offering more environmentally friendly options adds further strain on restaurant operators in an industry facing an already tenuous financial situation. This tension increases the urgency for solutions that balance experience, profit and waste generation.