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Which Sustainably Packaging Model Is Best for Your Restaurant Business?

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During the pandemic the takeout market more than doubled. Many of the sustainability practices that we were committed to pre-COVID flew out the door when we entered this unprecedented era. But with no sign of a slowdown for the demand of takeout, many consumers and restaurant opertors now feel personally drawn to make smarter packaging choices.

Rather than relying on one-use plastics, since they are known to float along the surface of bodies of water, kill marine life and wildlife, and release methane and ethylene, among other issues, many operators are turning to a sustainable packaging model.

Fast Facts:

  • Food related waste, including straws, cutlery, and takeout containers, make up more than 60% of the most commonly collected items at the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC).
  • Pizza boxes were the single most common type of takeout packaging reported, with 61% of Americans receiving at least one in the last month.
  • 46% of Americans reported receiving their takeout in expanded polystyrene (foam) clamshell containers, followed by containers with clear plastic lids and black plastic bottoms (39%), and paper containers (37%).
  • 60% Americans would support local ordinances improving recyclability standards for takeout containers.
  • One in three Americans would be willing to subscribe to a local low-cost reusable take out container return program.

Beyond just guest preferences, the government is now getting involved to resolve this issue. A bill called the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was originally introduced in 2020 and has continued to grow. It’s a bill to reduce the production and use of certain single-use plastic products and packaging and to improve the responsibility of producers in the design, collection, reuse, recycling, and disposal of their consumer products and packaging. There are some states that have completely banned certain forms of single-use plastics, mainly plastic bags. These states include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.

Fortunately, there are a lot of great options when it comes to eco-friendly takeout containers and paper products. Reusable, recyclable, and compostable are the three major categories that fall under the sustainable packaging category. Each provides something different.

Do some research to decide what is best for you based on the kind of food and beverages that you serve. Your takeout packaging choices directly affect your restaurant’s image and reputation, so it is important to choose containers that ensure meals arrive to the customer at the right temperature and looking delicious.

So, which sustainable packaging model is best for your business? Well, that depends on your goals. Read on to learn more about the three major sustainable packaging options.


Recyclable to-go containers are products that can be reclaimed or reprocessed into new materials. Recyclable takeout containers are commonly made from plastic. Choices include:

Aluminum containers: Out of all the types of takeout containers — aluminum, cardboard, plastic, and foam — aluminum is the easiest for recycling plants to recycle. And the cardboard lids are also recyclable.

Plastic clamshell containers: Clear plastic takeout containers with a recycling symbol can be recycled. If it’s a plastic container labeled No. 1 or No. 2, you can recycle it and should whenever possible.

Paper or cardboard containers: These are often made from recycled materials and can be recycled themselves. Even ones that aren’t recyclable are far less toxic than plastic or Styrofoam when being processed, burned, or buried.

Paper carry out bags: Consider sending to-go orders home in large paper bags that can be recycled or reused. Many varieties of plastic bags can’t be.


The popularity of reusable containers is on the rise. While they are often associated with an increase in costs, the knowledge that they’re not generating waste or discharging worrisome chemicals into the environment makes it worth it for some consumers and operators. A couple of popular options are:

Reusable stainless steel or glass. This model entails selling a to-go bowl, cup, or container to customers, who then bring it home from the restaurant then return with it on their next visit.

While there is an initial cost associated with reusable bowls, such as expenses like new inventory, increased water usage, and added labor, most newly purchased reusable stock paid for itself in a month or less, according to the case studies.

To offset expenses, sometimes the patron is charged a small fee for the container. But as stated in the facts above, survey show that one in three Americans said they would be willing to subscribe to a local low-cost reusable take out container return program.

Plastic containers that can be reused by the consumer. Plastic containers create lower greenhouse gas emissions and use less energy and water than single-use containers, even after dishwashing. Polypropylene containers are dishwasher-safe and can be reused by the consumer for as long as 6 months or more in some cases.


Compostable products are defined as biodegradable and non-toxic. They break down into water, biomass, and carbon dioxide within 90 to 180 days of disposal. Consumer demand for compostable packaging continues to grow since composting has been found to be safer for human and environmental health because it basically leaves behind no negative effects.

There are fewer compostable options that allow your food to travel well, but even mixing a few reliable compostable options into your current mix is a step in the right direction. A few to consider are:

Paper Bakery Bags: This inexpensive option is great for dry foods. Caution: greasy or moist food items will leak through the bag and make a mess.

Bagasse: Bagasse is made using environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. It is derived from the leftover byproducts of the sugar or wheat extraction processes. It can be used for containers, plates, trays, and bowls. While bagasse is an eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam, many bagasse containers have poor steam control which could make certain foods soggy.

PLA Coated Paper or Clear PLA (Polylactic Acid): PLA can also be used to make clear compostable carry-out containers. This is the best compostable takeout option if you would like to showcase your food product to your customers.

PLA containers look and feel like plastic products, providing your customers with the least disruption in performance. But because they are so similar to plastic, they are often mistaken as plastic and recycled or discarded in the trash. PLA is not accepted for recycling.


When it comes to making your restaurant eco-friendly, take things one day at a time. This is a drastic change for our industry that will not be fixed overnight. However, making small changes in the right direction everyday makes a big difference.

To increase your restaurant’s profitably, including properly forecasting your use of carry out containers, consider an all-in-one restaurant management system. Restaurant365 incorporates restaurant accounting softwarerestaurant operations softwareinventory management softwarepayroll + HR software, and scheduling software into a cloud-based platform that’s fully integrated with your POS system, as well as to your food and beverage vendors, and bank.

Schedule a free demo of Restaurant365 today.