Plastic pollution is an increasingly complex problem with dangerous ramifications for the safety of drinking water, aquatic ecosystems, and public health. Twenty-three percent of plastic materials in landfills in the United States come from food containers and food packaging, and it makes up as much as 80 percent of the trash collected from the Anacostia River and Baltimore Harbor. Put another way, 269,000 tons of plastic pollution are from takeout orders with utensils like cups, plates, straws, and plastic silverware. Food businesses have a responsibility to reduce their contribution to plastic waste and, as technology evolves, it is becoming easier for them to do so. Here are some key statistics on plastic pollution and food businesses:
- 7 out of 10 categories of plastic waste are single use-plastics like plates, straws, cups, and bags.
- Plastic packaging is the fastest growing segment of packaging and less than 14 percent of it can be recycled.
- Americans use more than 100 million pieces of plastic utensils every day and that plastic either lives forever in a landfill, burns in an incinerator, or ends up in the environment contaminating soil and wildlife.
- Americans throw away 500 million plastic straws each day.
- Companies waste about $11.4 billion annually in savings by not incorporating recycling into their packaging choices.
- 150,000 pounds of garbage a year are produced by restaurants.
- Foam breaks up into tiny pieces absorbing 10 times more pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals than other kinds of plastic increasing toxin exposure to our marine life.
- US EPA states 100% of Americans already have styrene in their bodies from consuming foods in contact with polystyrene.
- Over 25 trillion plastic pieces are estimated to be in our ocean’s currently.
While these statistics are staggering, there is hope for food businesses looking to reduce their plastic footprint and lead the movement to decrease plastic pollution. A variety of guides, resources, and lists provide step-by-step tips to phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic and phasing in recyclable and compostable alternatives–that are becoming more cost-effective as more businesses convert. Tips and tools for food businesses to utilize in their quest for preventing plastic pollution include the following:
- Identify the different streams of waste generated.
- Assess the input and output of waste generated.
- Use this baseline data to determine opportunities for waste reduction.
- Assess and track usage of single-use plastics.
- Identify which items are crucial and which can be phased out entirely.
- Identify which products can come in reusable packaging.
- Seek out products in containers the supplier can take back.
- Seek out reusable serviceware.
- Switch to bulk purchasing when applicable.
- Create a “bring your own” container program.
- Work with local community members and organizations to create incentives for businesses taking steps to decrease their plastic pollution.
- Purchase recyclable and compostable service ware.
- Buy chlorine-free products to avoid leaching of toxic water from the manufacturing of chlorine products.
- Biodegradable and bio-based products can’t easily reach conditions that allow the product to break down so avoid these products.
- Join TapIt and allow people to refill their reusable water bottles.
- Phase out usage of bottled-water.
- Ask customers before providing them with single-use plastics like straws.
- Responsible Purchasing Guide
- Green Purchasing Resources – pg. 43-44
- An organizational guide to pollution prevention
- Maryland’s Department of Environment’s Green Registry: a registry of Maryland businesses implementing green waste management, water and energy conservation, and green building practices. A wonderful local resource to model a business off of!
- Maryland Green Travel Restaurant Partners: A partnership between Maryland Office of Tourism, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland Tourism Coalition and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources developed the Maryland Green Travel Program to highlight and identify tourism businesses with green practices. The Maryland Green Travel Restaurant registry specifically highlights food businesses.
- The SFTool Product Search: a resource businesses can use to assist in sustainable purchasing practices.
- Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean-Friendly Restaurants program recognizes food businesses that recycle, use reusable tableware, and don’t use polystyrene foam or plastic bags. Mother’s Cantina in Ocean City is a proud partner!
- DC’s Recycling List
- EPA Green Procurement Guidelines
- DC’s Office of Contracting and Procurement (OCP)’s sustainable purchasing guidelines for food services
- DC Department of General Services free example signs for adequate recycling and composting
- Green DC Restaurants Action Manual
- DC Mayor’s List of Recyclables and Compostables
Plastic pollution is a daunting issue, but as we continue to raise awareness and share resources, businesses play a unique role in combatting and reducing plastic pollution. Be a leader in your community and take steps today to reduce your plastic footprint!
Download this article as a tipsheet to share with restaurants in your community.