Makes that age-old question, “Would you like that for here or to go?” a little more important, right?
It’s an age-old question in the food service industry and restaurant owners might be considered foolish if they don’t offer the option for customers to take their food to go. However, the “to go” answer is one that becomes inherently less eco-friendly, because it means disposable utensils must be supplied to the customer.
All the to-go products amount to a lot of waste in our landfills. Disposable utensils may never be entirely eco-friendly due to their nature as one-time-use products, but can they be greener?
Step 1: Reduce your overall need for disposables.
Cut down on cutlery waste and costs by having employees ask customers first if they need utensils, rather than automatically throwing them in the bag. Also, try offering your customers incentives to bring their own. Companies like To-Go Ware make this a snap with their oh-so-portable (and eco!) bamboo fork, spoon, knife, and chop-stick sets in compact carrying cases. You could even consider selling To-Go Ware (which can be ordered in bulk and sold at retail) at your restaurant in order to not only reduce your disposable cutlery costs, but also to add an extra revenue stream.
Step 2: Discover your city’s waste collection programs.
This will dictate which type of disposable utensil is best for your food service establishment. Does your city offer recycling and/or compost collection? If there is no municipal pick-up, are there recycling or composting centers in your area? Check Earth911.org for places that may accept disposable (conventional or green) utensils. The Environmental Protection Agency’s website offers a clickable map to find regional and state composting programs.
Step 3: Pick the greenest one-time utensils for your needs.
Now begins the process of deciding which type of eco-friendly, disposable cutlery is right for you. Luckily, there are many material options available now, from corn or potato starch, to tapioca, talc, and wood.
Remember: Even if your city does not offer commercial composting, biodegradable utensils are still the more eco-conscious choice, since they are usually made with renewable, non-toxic resources, not petroleum-based plastics. Reducing demand for oil-based products goes a long way toward never having to witness a Gulf oil spill disaster again.
Also, your customers may want to compost them at home, if possible. Prices may (or may not!) be higher than what you pay for conventional disposable utensils – eco-friendly cutlery can range from $40 to $100 per 1000 pieces – but the environmental benefits will pay off in the long run and more customers may be inclined to support your business if you offer greener products. Also, you will be saving money by reducing overall need for disposables, as discussed in Step 1.
Here are some of your earth-friendly cutlery choices:
- Birchware: Standard compostable forks, spoons, and knives made from renewable, sustainable sources (100% birch wood). Birchware contains no glues, dyes, or other chemicals, and can withstand heat up to 200 degrees. Unlike biodegradable options, Birchware can be composted in either a home or commercial facility. An added benefit of using birch (rather than corn or potato-based bioplastic) is that it’s not a product that could otherwise be used for food.
- EcoTensil: A totally different approach to disposable spoons. EcoTensil offers recyclable and compostable (breaks down in just three to five weeks!) full-size and tasting spoons made from sustainably forested paperboard. Due to their unique design, EcoTensil spoons also use much less material to produce.
- Bambu: Single-use utensils made of 100% organic bamboo, a highly renewable resource as one of Earth’s fastest growing plants. Biodegradable and compostable in a home or commercial composting facility.
- Ecoware: Biodegradable, compostable wood cutlery. Offer sporks, ice cream spoons, and a variety of utensil sizes in addition to the usual fork, spoon, and knife.
- Worldcentric: Forks, spoons, knives, and small tasting spoons and sporks that are biodegradable and made of non-GMO, corn-based bioplastic and talc. These items are only compostable in commercial facilities.
In addition, there are several eco-friendly restaurant supply websites, such as the Biodegradable Store and the Eco Product Store, which offer both compostable and non-compostable, plant-based cutlery. Depending on your location and the amount of utensils needed, some price comparison may be necessary for these types of sites.
Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. As a serial eco-entrepreneur who has started, grown and sold multiple green businesses, Scott believes that capitalism, true capitalism, can be a powerful force for change, but that our current version of capitalism is severely hampered by perverse subsidies and negative externalities that make unsustainable products less expensive than healthier alternatives. Scott is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, and an organic gardener. Find Scott on Google Plus