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National Restaurant Association - NRA Show speaker to discuss ways to reduce trash

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NRA Show speaker to discuss ways to reduce trash

Restaurants are adopting new ways to keep disposable food containers out of landfills, but they could use more help from customers to hurry along the process, one packaging expert says.

Green packaging options have increased markedly in recent years, says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute. She cites advances such as “bio-based polymers,” or packaging materials used like plastic but originate from renewable sources such as corn.

Similarly, she says, more restaurant packaging is made from “non-tree cellulose,” or renewable resources such as bamboo. The end product looks and feels like paper, without taxing timberlands.

As supply increases, the cost of packages made from those alternative materials is coming down, Dyer adds. Eventually, she suggests, the research and development costs will be fully amortized, and the price differential from conventional packages will shrink.

At the same time, more operators are looking at recycling and composing. Dyer notes a program in the Chicago area that turns a coffee chain’s used cups into napkins, which the brand then buys for its outlets in the area.

Waste haulers are making it easier for restaurants to recycle, setting up recovery stations or otherwise erecting an infrastructure to recover materials.

Where that’s not yet a reality, some vendors are engineering work-arounds. Dyer cites the example of a company that sells polystyrene food containers. In areas where there’s no recycling system, the firm provides restaurant customers with a box they can pack with used disposables and ship to the supplier.

Those methods are helping restaurants cut their contributions to the waste stream. Overall, packaging accounts for about 30 percent of landfill’s mass, says Dyer. Foodservice disposables contribute just 1.2 percent of the garbage flowing into dumps.

Restaurants don’t control all of that volume. “What happens to containers after they leave the store?” Dyer notes that 75 percent of quick-service meals are carried out or delivered.

Educating customers to take a role is challenging, especially in regard to recycling. Patrons have to be taught to sort what they now discard in one bin, and “that’s really, really hard” because old habits die hard, she says.

Dyer will be discussing issues related to packaging at an education session next month at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show. The NRA Show is set for May 21 through 24 in Chicago.

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