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Compostable Material & Your Restaurant: A Guide to the Basics

Today we have a guest blog post by from our friends at The Back Burner.  Here is the low-down on compostable materials for restaurants.

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In the hack and slash world of cost-cutting and price adjusting those traversing the tricky trail through the restaurant industry know the value of inexpensive disposable products. Chances are if you own a restaurant or work in the business you handle a handful of disposable materials on a daily basis, ranging from takeout containers to cups and utensils. Unfortunately, most of these products end up resting at the bottom of one landfill or another, used and tossed without second thought. After all, they weren’t that expensive and came in a case pack of 1,000, right?

Yet more restaurants are noticing unnecessary waste and focusing on ways to cut back. Replacing traditional disposables with compostable versions is one such solution.

What does it mean to be compostable? Compostable products break down into water, carbon dioxide, and a biomass of renewable resources. After full degradation, compostable products leave no toxic residue. Additionally, the breakdown process of compostable material takes significantly less time than plastics and even biodegradables. In a composting facility degraded product is indistinguishable from the rest of the compost.

When it comes to compostable material for your restaurant, you’ve got options. Corn-based and PLA products, sugarcane, and post-consumer recycled material all hold inherent value when considering green substitutes for your disposables.

-          Corn-based compostables:  Corn cups and compostables are convenient and beneficial since the crop is already being produced on a large scale in the United States. This is due in part to an effort to replace petroleum-based plastics. Being carbon neutral, meaning an equal amount of carbon dioxide is absorbed by the plants as is needed to make the product, corn-based materials leave no carbon footprint in regards to creation.

  • PLA:  PLA is an acronym for polylactic acid, a polymer created to replace oil-based plastics, and is most commonly made from corn. It has future potential to be made from sugar beats, rice, and sugarcane depending on local crop availability.

-          Sugarcane:  Bagasse, the mashed sugarcane stalk left behind after the sweet juices are extracted, is regularly burned after extraction. Disposable sugarcane products are made from this often discarded Bagasse, taking a virtually unused byproduct of the sugar refining process and turning it into compostable bowls, plates, and containers.

-          Post-consumer recyclables:  Post-consumer material is product that has been recycled after it was used. This material is then used to create more cups, containers, and utensils. Compostable cups and products are about 25% post-consumer materials.

-          BPI Certified:  Being BPI certified sets the standard when it comes to compostable products. Check for BPI certification before purchasing to make sure you’re getting the highest quality product and not something that’s been “greenwashed”, meaning it’s labeled as compostable but really isn’t.

But with compostable materials often costing a little more than common Styrofoam and plastic products, why pay extra?

Going green is more than just a fad. People are on board with the concept of going green, it’s a fact. Promoting aspects of your restaurant that emit a metaphorical “green” light, like compostable flatware and takeout containers, is a great way to resonate with environmentally conscious customers. Connecting with customers on a personal level, and showing you care about issues they care about, generates positive word of mouth and repeat business. Face it, a customer who chooses your restaurant for breakfast and coffee every morning, based on your business practices, is much more valuable than fair-weather patrons using a sale coupon or hopping in for promotional pricing.

One piece of the puzzle. The thing about going green is it takes more than simply replacing your disposables with compostable counterparts. This is a great step, but it’s one step on a continuous path. Whether fueled by a personal, moral conviction or as an attempt to connect with customers, more and more restaurants are instituting green programs. It’s part of the way they do business, plain and simple. From the light fixtures to the recyclables, each piece adds to the overall puzzle and paints a picture of responsibility and respect for the surrounding community and environment. If you’ve started implementing a green program at your restaurant, include compostable material but don’t stop there!

Tweaking your restaurant equipment to run more efficiently, actively recycling and composting, and being more conscious of your energy use are just a few ways to ring the “green” bell and let customers know you’re trying to make a difference. It’s no secret, adding green components to your restaurant is an excellent marketing opportunity and a great way to attract and retain customers. Be honest and upfront, and if you make a claim that you’re using compostable materials and recycling regularly set that as your bar and never duck below it. People will notice.

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Andrew Call provides blog insights regarding restaurant management and marketing at The Back Burner, which is written by the employees of Tundra Specialties, a company specializing in restaurant supply, parts, and a wide variety of food service equipment and sundries.