Don’t Throw Money Away: Compostable vs. Recyclable Packaging

Foodable WebTV Network

Foodable WebTV Network

Sustainability efforts continue to be one of the distinguishing factors that can make a restaurant stand out from the crowd amidst the constant battle for diners and their dollars.

Customers are increasingly interested in restaurants’ sustainable practices and your choice of packaging in your restaurant can be a great way to communicate your values and goals to them. After all, one of the most consumer-facing parts of your business is your packaging. However, with so many choices today, it can be hard to know what kind is best for your business.  

Understanding the Difference

Sustainable packaging often means different things to different people. For example, it could refer to the materials themselves and whether the packaging is made from recycled content or fiber. But it could also refer to what happens to the packaging after it’s been used and whether it’s recyclable or compostable.  

Recyclable refers to whether the packaging can be collected through a recycling program to be made into a new product. Use of the term “recyclable” by itself without any qualifying language also requires that recycling facilities must be available to a substantial majority of the consumers where the item is sold. 

In comparison, to be labeled compostable, the package must be able to break down into usable compost, which enriches the soil in a safe and timely manner. This can be done in an industrial composting facility or in a home compost pile or device. Labels should include the type of facility the product will compost in and whether or not those facilities are available to a majority of the consumers in the area. For example, most compostable plastic foodservice packaging is designed for composting in an industrial facility, and at this point, only a minority of consumers have access to them.

While this can seem confusing, a good place to start is by focusing on performance and cost since they are often the biggest drivers in choosing which type of packaging you’ll need. Make sure whatever packaging you opt for fits your budget and performs well for your operation and customers.  

Beyond those considerations, your packaging choices can vary depending on customer needs, the recycling or composting infrastructure available in your area, and any local laws that might exist. 

3 Steps for Successfully Integrating Sustainable Packaging

The following three tips can help you better navigate the options, challenges, and solutions: 

1. Do your homework. Check with your city or municipality to determine what options are available to recycle or compost foodservice packaging in your area. In addition, talk with the facility itself as well as your waste hauler to find out whether or not they accept foodservice packaging, and if they do, which types. Finally, check with your local city government to determine if there are any laws in place that mandate or restrict the use of certain packaging.

2. Ask for help. Ask your supplier or distributor for suggestions based on your business’s needs. They have knowledge about different product lines and often find out about new options and technologies. Also, consider talking with your local restaurant association and fellow restaurateurs about the packaging they use. If they are located in the same area, they might know if the infrastructure is available to recycle or compost the packaging. In addition, the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI) has a great online resource that can help when you’re considering a packaging switch. The FPI recently released a free Strategic Sourcing Guide for foodservice operators, which provides direction on where to source packaging and outlines purchasing considerations for foodservice operators.

3. Communicate with your customers. Use your packaging to communicate your sustainability message to customers. Consider printed messaging on cups, bags, napkins, and other packaging that tells customers if the packaging is recyclable or compostable and what to do with it after it’s been used.

Switching to recyclable or compostable packaging can seem daunting, but with a little effort and some homework, you can ensure your sustainability goals are being met by purchasing products that can be recycled into other products or converted into a valuable product that can enrich soil.  

Whichever packaging you choose, you can feel good that you’re working to keep this valuable material out of the landfill and you and your customers are not throwing money away.