Navigating regulations: The eco-friendly frontier

Illustration by Sam Falconer

The current regulatory climate in the U.S., at least when it comes to the rules impacting her members, is “fast and furious,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, an organization that represents packaging companies. In addition, she cites an uncomfortable number of “copycat laws,” where one jurisdiction sees a packaging ordinance in a neighboring town as a remedy for its own problem.

What works in one community doesn’t guarantee success several miles away, Dyer says. 

Overall, straw and polystyrene bans are rolling out in states and municipalities across the nation, while all eyes, especially those of operators who rely heavily on takeout and delivery, are on how the federal government will proceed when it comes to regulating plastic servingware.

With many measures, the devil’s in the details, says Dustin Cutler, executive director of dining at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., who is seeking to see in these laws a “sensitivity to accessibility. We have customers with disabilities who need straws in order to consume a beverage, so a blanket ban on straws isn’t a solution we condone.”

At the federal level, Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Alan Lowenthal brought forward a proposal in mid-July pushing for wide-ranging blanket bans, including single-use plastic items such as expanded polystyrene, bags, cups, lids, cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers. Exceptions are expected to be made for individuals with disabilities until adequate alternatives are developed, according to language within the proposal.

The dining team at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., has been “making a conscious effort to transition away from plasticwares” for several years, says Cherie Tyger, foodservice director for AVI Foodsystems in Warren, Ohio, which oversees foodservice at Wellesley.

“Any single-use items we utilize on campus are made from compostable materials,” Tyger says.  “We’ve moved to compostable straws and have completely eliminated plastic bags. By slowly implementing a ‘green’ program, we’re able to soften the financial impact on our operations, rather than converting all components at once.”

Residual concerns

As bans are enacted, foodservice stakeholders worry about some impacts being spawned in their wake. “I’m concerned that if plastics are banned, it’s an opportunity for paper and compostable packaging manufacturers to price gouge,” says Eric Eisenberg, director of dining services at Rogue Valley Manor senior living community in Medford, Ore. "If packaging costs for these to-go items are suddenly out of reach, it may not be worthwhile of us to pursue a food-to-go initiative.”

In addition, single-use cups could widely be replaced by permanent reusables, bringing to light sanitation and water use issues. “An establishment might have to increase water use to wash reusable cups,” says Dyer. “Plus, I wonder if operators have the right protocols in place to educate customers about the proper sanitation for reusable vessels?” She encourages foodservice operations to collaborate with their packaging suppliers to ensure they’re proactive when it comes to compliance.

“We think this is a field that’s going to change dramatically over the next few years.” —Dustin Cutler 

Cutler says reusable straws “present concerns from a sanitary standpoint, since they’re hard to wash thoroughly, but we’re exploring this as an option as well as compostable straws that break down over time. We think this is a field that’s going to change dramatically over the next few years.”

An eye up north

In June, Canada—estimating that less than 10% of the nation’s plastic waste is recycled—introduced a plan to eliminate single-use plastic food containers and utensils by 2021. Such a ban would cover almost every form of plastic disposable used by foodservice operations, from plates to straws, stirrers and bags. Polystyrene clamshells and other containers would also presumably be covered.

The move could have a trickle-down effect on U.S. operations that rely on Canadian companies for packaging materials, Foodservice Packaging Institute President Lynn Dyer says, noting that “a ban will limit the marketplace, reducing packaging options and potentially increasing costs for operators.” At FPI, which represents packaging companies in Canada as well as in the U.S., “no doubt we are concerned about this,” she says, revealing that the city of Vancouver, B.C., has been the most zealous metro area in terms of accelerating such measures. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan, which has not yet been ratified, echoes the intentions of the European Union, which voted in March to impose a sweeping ban on single-use plastics including cutlery, straws and stirrers. The EU ban takes effect in 2021.



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