We all need a to-go box from time to time, whether it’s your meal on the run or your delectable leftovers that you just couldn’t let go to waste. The disposable nature of to-go boxes make them less-than-eco, but there are sustainable solutions to the take-out container problem.
Start by reducing your restaurant’s need for to-go boxes. This will cut your to-go box costs, lessen landfill waste, and save dwindling resources. To do this, encourage your patrons to bring their own containers if they wish to take food to go, whether it be plastic Tupperware from home or the very convenient To-Go Ware food carriers. To-Go Ware has created stainless steel “Tiffins” with two or three detachable tiers, handy handles, and custom bags for toting. To-Go Ware even has Sidekicks — smaller, stainless steel containers ideal for your meal’s sauces, dressings, and sides. Stainless steel means no toxins leaching from petroleum-based plastics, making To-Go Ware safer than your average food storage containers. Restaurant owners might consider selling To-Go Ware tiffins as a potential revenue source, but also to cut back on costs of disposable to-go box costs.
There are also green options for single-use take-out boxes. For eco-friendly restaurateurs, there are now a variety of sustainable materials available for to-go containers including bagasse, recycled materials, and plant-based bio-plastics. Some materials are more sustainable than others, and the disposal options must also be taken into account when deciding on which type of to-go containers is right for your restaurant. For instance, if your community doesn’t have composting widely available, compostable materials may not be worthwhile, and you could choose to focus on reusables or materials that are biodegradable in landfills. Prices may be higher than what you currently pay for to-go containers, which is why encouraging reuse and asking customers if they’d like to purchase a reusable take-out container are solid strategies.
- Bagasse — This biodegradable and compostable material is made from sugar cane fibers that are a waste product of the sugar extracting process. The fibers are normally burned after juicing, creating air pollution. Making products from bagasse repurposes a waste product and eliminates the need for virgin paper and petroleum-based plastics — materials commonly used for to-go boxes. Of the places you can order bagasse clamshells, Viv Biz Club has an innovative program, essentially acting as a middleman by providing bulk order discounts to small businesses! Other places to find bagasse include World Centric, the Eco Products Store, Bio Pak. Bagasse clamshells can be complex with multiple compartments and soak-proof features, so prices range widely from $60 to $200 for 500 pieces.
- Recycled Paperboard — This material repurposes used paperboard and saves trees. BioPlus, for example (sold at a variety of online restaurant suppliers like MrTakeOutBags and Fold-Pak), makes simple, customizable to-go boxes from 100% recycled paperboard, with a minimum of 35% post-consumer waste. They make both biodegradable (BioPlus Earth) and commercially compostable (BioPlus Terra) to-go boxes, the difference being that the Terra boxes are a little pricier and are lined with a PLA coating to ensure commercial composting capability. If your community does not have commercial composting, the biodegradable BioPlus Earth boxes are an excellent option. BioPlus provides a variety of box shapes and sizes, ranging in price from $87 to $280 for 500 pieces.
- Bio-Plastics — Plastic derived from plants, such as corn or potatoes, are increasingly available for single-use products like to-go containers. Although sustainable, bio-plastics do have some drawbacks, as the materials could otherwise be used for food. On the plus side, bio-plastics are compostable and biodegradable. The Viv Biz Club, the Eco Products Store, World Centric, the Biodegradable Store, and other online restaurant suppliers all sell a wide variety of plant-based bio-plastic to-go boxes. Prices range from $80 to $190 for 500 containers, depending on the desired size and shape.
- Recycled Plastic — can leach toxins into foods. If it’s necessary for your restaurant due to your community’s waste-handling systems, however, recycled plastic is an option that is more eco-friendly than styrofoam or virgin plastic. The Eco Products Store sells 100% recycled PET plastic food containers of a few sizes, ranging from $125 to $160 for 500 pieces.
Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of 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. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on Google Plus
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