Packaging becomes a concern in food service sustainability

David Bellm

January 29, 2014

3 Min Read
Packaging becomes a concern in food service sustainability

The recent Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) meeting in Alberta, Canada, and National Restaurant Association trade show in Chicago reflect growing interest in sustainability within the foodservice industry. This industry includes not only restaurants—quick-service as well as full-service—but also institutional and contract foodservice providers such as Compass Group; suppliers of packaging for home, event and institutional use; and single-use products such as bottled drinks.  

The FPI focuses its efforts on single-use packaging. According to a recent FPI survey, sales volumes and profits within the industry are rising. The top five challenges identified in the survey for the European and North American foodservice packaging industry are:   Increasing raw material costs, margin compensation, global economic recovery, public perception of packaging or foodservice packaging as waste, and development of new products in response to calls for “sustainable” packaging.

Jim Hanna, director of environmental impact for Starbucks Coffee Co., gave a keynote presentation, “The ‘Greening’ of Foodservice Packaging,” which challenged the industry to be more proactive on policies as a way to address these challenges. Given the piecemeal approach undertaken by municipalities and states, it behooves the industry to work together on solutions focused on more sustainable materials flows for foodservice packaging.

The National Restaurant Association’s program “Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability” was created to help members “generate greater efficiencies, reduce waste and expand capacity to use renewable resources as new technologies and practices become available.” Their event showcased packaging suppliers who optimize their material and energy usage, include recycled and certified fiber content, and provide certified compostable packaging. 

Similar to FPI, the National Restaurant Association membership has identified waste diversion and resource recovery as key issues. In particular, composting played a significant role in this year’s show, as several presentations, exhibitors and products focused on composting and compostable packaging as a foodservice-specific solution. While this is encouraging, a concern is the apparent continuing confusion between the terms biodegradability and compostability, as seen on the show floor, as well as a thorough understanding of recyclability. Given the diversity of packaging materials, this confusion is neither surprising nor unique.

The National Restaurant Association is a willing partner in efforts to develop recovery infrastructure, as well as education. Its Greener Restaurants pilot program is unique in that it is not a certification program, but rather a process that “encourages an open dialogue” and “will clearly show the transparency of operator efforts.” While rightfully focusing on the efficiency of operations, efforts towards packaging issues are also growing.

The SPC is involved in a number of collaborative efforts for packaging in foodservice. On the design side, one project is guidelines to encourage foodservice-specific packaging that is recoverable through recycling or composting. This effort is being co-developed with Global Green USA’s Coalition for Resource Recovery and participants of Starbucks Cup Summits.

There is huge potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and conserve resources through sustainability strategies aimed at foodservice packaging and food-related waste.

Anne Bedarf is a project manager for the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (, a project of GreenBlue. For additional information, email [email protected]


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