It doesn’t take a data scientist to confirm that the demand for to-go packaging has skyrocketed. Any restaurant or foodservice operation fortunate to remain open during the pandemic is using plenty more takeout and delivery containers.
Back in March and April of last year, demand outpaced the supply, and manufacturers had to move quickly to get more product into the marketplace. Likewise, operators had to scramble to procure any packaging they could—sometimes putting sustainability on the back burner.
We’ve now moved into 2021, and the supply of sustainable recyclable and compostable packaging has increased, and in some cases, the cost has decreased. Innovation accelerated during the pandemic, and manufacturers are tapping into new materials and formats.
But COVID has put another priority on the front burner: sanitation.
“It’s been interesting to watch health and safety come to the forefront,” said Natha Dempsey, president of the Food Packaging Institute. With the surge in takeout and delivery, “operators have to make sure customers feel secure that their food is safe.”
Tamper-evident is the word rising to the top for packaging companies and restaurants. California even passed legislation around the term, mandating that operators using third-party delivery have to secure containers to indicate they haven’t been opened or violated. “There’s no requirement that a package be tamperproof,” said Dempsey. “[Tamper-evident] can be as simple as a piece of masking tape keeping the lid closed.”
Security with style
But some packaging companies are designing more stylish and secure solutions based on learnings that came out of the pandemic.
VerTerra, a manufacturer with a focus on sustainable packaging and serving ware, recently released new products that meet the tamper-evident criteria as well as restaurateurs’ other evolving needs, said founder and CEO Michael Dwork. The company’s new recyclable paperboard bento boxes have four locking tabs and are compartmentalized for portion control.
“Typical to-go containers are pretty large, and teams have a tendency to overfill them, cutting into profit margins,” he said. “The bento boxes limit portion size to what would be served in the restaurant.”
The new containers also keep meal components separate, making for a more attractive carryout meal—a demand of both consumers and operators. VerTerra’s fine-dining customers, many of whom didn’t do a lot of takeout pre-pandemic, want to signal the quality of the food and brand through the packaging, said Dwork. “More people were commenting on how ‘the look’ is a differentiator.”
Pre-COVID, these same customers were mostly purchasing high-end disposable trays, plates and serving ware for catering. “All the products they really wanted before the pandemic, they don’t want now,” said Dwork. So he is repurposing his signature palm leaf plates and trays for off-premise, fitting them with lids.
Meal kits, wine pairing dinners and subscription plans from upscale restaurants continue to trend, and Dwork expects the demand for quality, beautiful to-go packaging to remain strong.
Paul Frantz, president of Novolex Food & Delivery, agreed. “There’s been a shift toward packaging higher-end items for takeout and delivery,” he said. “Fine-dining customers are realizing they can have a very good experience eating restaurant food at home, some portion of this will remain post-vaccine.”
But the packaging has a lot to do with that experience, especially when it comes to the integrity of hot foods. “The entire industry is looking for vented containers that keep crispy food crispy in transit,” Frantz said. Along with tamper-evident locking mechanisms on rigid containers, vented packaging is a major focus of innovation going forward.
He also noted a shift away from packaging for single meals and towards family meals and meal kits. For Novolex, a major producer of paper bags, that has meant an increase in production of shopping bags and large “load and seal” bags. “New bags for delivery include tamper-evident seals to communicate sanitation and safety,” he said.
Cutting back on waste
The surge in takeout and delivery during COVID brought a much greater awareness about waste, said FPI’s Dempsey. “With the pandemic bringing everybody home, consumers saw firsthand how all that to-go packaging piled up, creating much more waste. But there really wasn’t more; it was just going to a different place,” she said.
Although residential waste went up by 15%, commercial waste, generated by office buildings and other facilities, was actually down 30%. Nevertheless, operators felt the need to respond to consumers’ heightened waste awareness.
Just Salad, which launched as a primarily off-premise concept in 2006, responded with new packaging in December. “Our new meal kit brand, Housemade, has 90% less packaging than standard meal kits and no plastic pouches or containers,” said Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “We’ve pared the packaging down to just three materials: Recyclable paper cups, bags and recipe cards; sugarcane-derived seasoning cups (which are compostable); and plant-based sticky labels that dissolve completely under running water.”
All delivery orders are sealed shut with tamper-evident stickers.
The increase in takeout and delivery during COVID helped packaging manufacturer World Centric grow its compostable line of molded fiber containers, said Mark Marinozzi, VP of marketing for the company. “Molded fiber is replacing Styrofoam and wood fiber, and is acceptable at commercial composters,” he said. “It also is produced with less waste than sugar cane and bamboo.” This more sustainable choice not only reduces waste, it’s more cost-effective than it’s been in the past.
The company already has molded fiber lids for hot cups on the market, with bowl and cold cup lids launching next.
World Centric also grew its No Tree line. The paper-based cups and bowls have a bio lining made from plants, replacing petroleum-based linings that can’t be recycled or composted. “We’re transitioning our portfolio, with tamper-evident engineering a priority,” said Marinozzi. Advancements include lid locks to keep lids secure on cups and containers.
More expansion of the molded fiber line is in the works. Molded fiber utensils are coming this spring and new products are in the pipeline. A bio-based leaf lining that is oil resistant is one such innovation, said Marinozzi. Currently, chemicals in the packaging are what is commonly used for greaseproof cup and container linings.
Just Salad is continuing to focus on providing scalable alternatives to single-use, disposable food containers, said Noonan. “Our on-premise Reusable Bowl program has kept tens of thousands of pounds of waste out of landfills every year since 2006. Going forward, we want to expand the Reusable Bowl program to digital ordering by implementing a use-and-return system with professional washing and sanitation,” she said.
Novolex has also gotten into reusable containers to jump on the alcohol-to-go trend. The company now offers operators a mason jar to fill with signature cocktails and what Frantz calls “grownup sippy cups” for alcoholic drinks that won’t tip over in transit.
Evaluating materials over the entire packaging lifecycle—from sourcing to production and disposal—is a top priority for some suppliers going forward. Just Salad is ahead of the curve. “We’ll estimate, as best we can, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of a piece of packaging. And we’re pushing potential suppliers to adopt this lifecycle perspective as well,” said Noonan.