How Restaurants Operations Should Shift in the Recycling Crisis

Matthew Hollis Elytus

Matthew Hollis

For the past two and a half decades, China has been the primary purchaser for the world’s recyclables. Since 1992, they have imported more than 100 million metric tons of plastic waste, and in 2016, China imported two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. However, recent health and environmental concerns as a result of contamination levels in those waste streams have led China to stop buying these materials. China is not banning all recyclable materials; rather, they are cracking down on the amount of contamination in the present in these materials. Regardless, some estimates state that China’s new policy could displace approximately 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by the year 2030. China’s ban on overly contaminated recyclables has shifted the entire recycling industry as countries attempted to find new buyers. With fewer buyers, the costs of recycling are skyrocketing.

Some are viewing China’s shift as an opportunity to create better recycling systems at home. In the United States, several states, counties and cities are taking the onus on themselves to curb plastic use. For example, Maryland enacted a ban on foam food packaging for the food industry. New York City banned plastic carryout and mandated responsible disposal of organic materials. Hawaii initiated a de-facto ban on plastic foam and other single-use foodware products. In the harshest legislative effort yet, Berkeley, California has banned all single-use food and beverage packaging and mandated all to-go foodware be compostable and all dine-in foodware be reusable.

In the midst of this recycling crisis, more restaurant operators than ever are considering switching to sustainable and reusable packaging – and for good reason. Switching to sustainable packaging both complies with the new regulations, can potentially reduce costs and protects the environment. In addition to those reasons, the eco-friendly switch can also be a driver for brand identity. Being known as a restaurant that is sustainably managed may differentiate the business from competitors and attract loyal, eco-conscious customers. According to a 2015 study, millennials would be 87 percent more loyal to a company that supports social or environmental causes. Another benefit to using sustainable packaging is the long-term financial savings. For example, if a restaurant kitchen uses single-use packaging to store ingredients, they must buy those items again and again. With reusable packaging, there is only one initial investment and with proper care and cleaning, the packaging can be used almost indefinitely. Restaurants can shrink their environmental footprint while saving big when they eliminate wasteful spending.

Prioritizing sustainable packaging may at first seem like an ambiguous goal. However, there are a few actionable steps one can take when making the switch. Start by auditing current vendors to confirm if their packaging materials come from legal, acceptable, and sustainably managed practices. If not, or if there is no transparency in the supply chain, source new vendors. When looking for new vendors, target companies that utilize renewable resources in packaging materials. Restaurant operators should consider products made from fibers from quick-growing trees, waste wheat chaff, or other renewable materials like bamboo. Compostable or biodegradable packaging for to-go containers is also important to consider.

Moving towards sustainable packaging does not have to be confusing, but it does require a commitment. You and your company must be willing to stick it out to see change. Whether you are making the switch due to new legislation or just to be more eco-friendly, you will be proud of what your business is doing for the environment when you implement reusable and sustainable packaging.

The author, Matthew S. Hollis, is the president of Elytus, an innovative waste management company committed to helping their clients #wastenothing. To learn more about Elytus, visit the company on the web at or on social media @Elytus.