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Tips to reduce your plastic waste AND food waste

By Robb White, CEC CCA AAC; Executive Chef & Food Waste Prevention Catalyst  ///  September 7, 2021


In the foodservice industry, the use of plastic sometimes can’t be prevented. Much of the food we purchase and utilize in our operations come packaged in plastic and we use plastic in the operation to preserve the food we purchase and serve. But plastic waste is one of the fastest growing problems for the environment. It is estimated that by 2050, the weight of plastic in the ocean will surpass the weight of fish.

With this in mind, it is important not only for individuals to reduce their plastic use, but for foodservice operations to lead by example by reducing the amount of plastic generated in the workplace. Many large companies like Starbucks, IKEA, and Disney have already committed to eliminating single-use plastic waste in the near future, and we expect many others will follow suit.

The good news is that by preventing food waste, you can also reduce plastic use. And many of the habits Leanpath clients have developed to track food waste can be used to track and prevent plastic waste.

Here are five tips to help reduce plastic waste while at the same time reducing your food waste.

1. Apply what you’ve learned from food waste tracking to plastic waste

Just like you begin reducing food waste by understanding what you’re wasting, a great starting point to reduce plastic waste is to have a better understanding of what materials you use in your operation, and consequently what materials are getting thrown away. A waste audit can help your operation focus on plastic waste and identify what actions are needed based on what you discover. Go through bins and record what plastics are being recycled or discarded and you’ll see instant opportunities for change. For example, perhaps you supply bottled water or disposable utensils — are customers drinking just a few each day, or are dozens of plastic water bottles and utensils being used and thrown away? If you supply plastic coffee cup lids, are they getting thrown in the trash or the recycling? Is plastic packaging waste abundant from your suppliers? Do plastic to-go bags seem to pile up? Even knowing simple plastic use habits such as these will be helpful when coming up with a reduction plan.

Once you start conducting plastic waste audits, make it a regular habit to see the volume of plastics your business has generated and what you can do differently for reduction. You can’t change what you can’t see -- so dive deep into all the ways plastics are creeping into your kitchen.

2. Apply lessons from your tracking and reduce, reuse, recycle

After conducting a waste audit, use that information to acknowledge what items you can reduce, reuse and/or recycle. In the example above, an easy way to reduce waste would be to supply less single-use plastic. To reuse, you could make a water pitcher or dispenser available to employees so they could refill — or, for an even more cost-effective way of reducing waste, you could offer non-disposable vessels and have customers drop them off in a designated area.

Additionally, be conscious when purchasing new items. Work with your vendors and ask about how things are packaged. Take inventory of what you have, and see if there are ways to reuse those items — even if you have to clean or repair them — before purchasing new ones and throwing the old ones away.

Lastly, when recycling, make sure your team knows how to properly recycle to avoid contamination. An easy way to accomplish this is with communication and signage as friendly reminders of what, when and how to recycle. All plastics are not created the same, so it’s also very important to translate the plastic recycling symbols when considering what you should and should not recycle. In many countries, different types of plastics can be identified by the number printed on them, and what numbers can be recycled often depends on your local curbside program. Here is a general overview of plastics recyclable by number for US readers to share with their team.

One of the easiest ways to keep plastic out of the landfill is to refuse single-use plastics, and provide eco-friendly alternatives instead. For example, provide your staff with reusable mugs, compostable or metal straws, reusable cutlery, reusable bags, reusable coffee filters, biodegradable trash bags, etc. By providing these alternatives to your staff, it encourages them to utilize them. In your business, use earth-friendly materials for bags or packaging.

3.Buy in bulk

Bulk buying for commonly used items in your kitchen is the easiest way to reduce plastic waste. For example, if olive oil is a commonly used ingredient in your kitchen, look to your vendor to see if the brand and quality of that olive oil is available in bulk. Why purchase a case of 12 one-quart plastic bottles if you can get it in bulk in one three-gallon jug? It will be cheaper and you will cut down on plastics. Other things to consider buying in bulk are dairy products (milk, yogurt, sour cream).

Additionally, bulk buying doesn't always have to mean buying large quantities. Bulk buying really allows you to purchase exactly the amount you need - minus all the plastics and packaging. If you really only need 10 pounds of a product, why buy a 24 pound case made up of 12- two-pound bags? Talk with your vendor and get the same product in 10-pound bulk. This will prevent you from wasting food, bringing unnecessary plastics in your kitchen, the extra cost of storage and losing premium storage space.

Buying in bulk does have considerations though. You need to focus on bulk buying the items with a high use in your operation. It doesn't make sense to bulk buy items you don’t use a lot of as they will spoil and then you are just increasing your food waste, or you then use single use plastics to wrap or store it and your efforts are for nothing. Be smart, be selective.

4. Go local and store properly

Most local produce farms deliver their produce in reusable crates or containers. This is win-win for the environment as it also cuts on the transportation impacts (gas, CO2 emissions) as well as reduced plastics for packaging. The reusable containers are picked up each delivery, washed and used again. Of course the real added benefit of buying local is the quality and freshness of all the ingredients that our farmers and growers can bring in our kitchen. Fresher items lead to a longer shelf life for your food that will help you reduce your food waste.

Not all operations have access to year-round local produce or meats. This doesn't mean you can’t reduce the plastics coming into your kitchen. Communicate with your vendor to see if different packaging can be done with your produce or see if certain items can be bought in bulk cases. Vendors will work with you - but you need to ask.

Once the product is in your kitchen, there are key things you can do to get the most shelf life out of the items. Storing food properly is the first and most important step. Utilize storage containers that are reusable and sustainable such as stainless steel pans, and containers. 

5. Control your purchases and your prep

As with all aspects of your business, having the proper forecasting and control is imperative. Proper purchasing and proper production forecast will not only cut down on plastic waste, but on food waste as well. As best you can, purchase in smaller quantities more frequently and prep in smaller quantities more frequently. These are general food waste best practices that are just as applicable to grab-and-go, a big source of plastic use. Purchasing in smaller quantities keeps inventory fresher, reducing the chance for waste due to spoilage. Prepping in smaller batches allows for greater control and alignment with demand. One grab-and-go operation we work with moved away from doing one large prep for lunch each morning to doing two smaller preps, one in the morning and one during service. This adjustment allowed them to meet their customers' needs, and to avoid waste at the end of the day from a morning prep: anything leftover from the service-time prep could be safely resold within a 24-hour window. So leftovers could be offered first thing the next day.

You can reduce your plastic waste and your food waste. It takes knowing, planning and action on your part. Until the tech and science catch up with the demand of biodegradable packaging and compostable single-use items, it will be up to you and your team to make a difference each and every day in your operation.

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Topics: Tips & Tricks