Switch to green food packaging and make a positive impact.

Switching to environmentally friendly takeout containers provides one of the best opportunities to make a sustainable impact.     

The latest generation of to-go packaging features more recycled paper, plastic and plant-based materials than ever before, and more products that can be composted or recycled after use.

Several colleges and universities, including Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas; Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., are leading the pack in green packaging. 

And restaurants that already feature environmental and sustainability initiatives increasingly are getting on board, like Tres Carnes in New York, Grand Rapids Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich., Le Crêpe Café in Honolulu, and SOL Mexican Cocina in Newport Beach, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz.  

But making the switch comes with a price. 

Some earth-friendly packaging may cost two or three times as much as standard foam, paper and plastic materials, according to Joe Pawlak, vice president of Chicago-based foodservice research firm Technomic. 

Green products are still growing, albeit slowly. Less than one percent of the $20 billion disposables market is made up of environmentally friendly products, either commercially compostable or made with recycled materials, according to Technomic.

As more operators get on board, industry leaders say that increasing production will help drive down costs. “Once a major chain moves to 100 percent environmentally friendly packaging, we’ll see the market change dramatically,” Pawlak says. More commercial composting facilities will help too, he adds.

Despite progress on the green scene, restaurant owners and suppliers continue to respond to annual membership surveys saying they are most concerned about the cost and performance of packaging, says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, an industry trade association based in Falls Church, Va.

“That bottom line is the product has to perform,” she says. 

Bareburger, an independently owned organic burger chain in New York, uses biodegradable or made-from, recycled paper containers, cups, bags and paper products . 

“Depending on the product, the price to use these items can be double or even triple in cost for the restaurant. [But] hands down, the performance is there, and it is worth the extra cost,” says Mark Turner, a Bareburger’s operations manager. “We know many of our guests respect and love this about us.”

Sustainable takeout packaging statistics infographic


Whether you opt to go green, or the decision is made for you (think cities that have banned Styrofoam, such as San Diego; plastic utensil bans in Seattle; and even banning plastic straws at Disney World), an overhaul can be strategic. A plan should entail different approaches, including ones that will resonate the most among core customers. Why? Because building loyalty among those who see sustainability as a concern can impact business. To begin, consider these ideas:


At Ancolie in New York City, salads, cold pasta, eggs and pastries are put in glass food packaging instead of plastic. The cost is built into the food costs, but the packaging can be reused at home or returned to the restaurant for a $2 credit. Salud Juice in Long Beach, California, uses glass for juices that’s tied to a rewards program. Diners who return 10 bottles earn a free juice. Salud owner Angela Almaguer says the $1 to $2 increases she built into the prices were quickly accepted; in part, because the bottles are eye-catching, while the glass itself preserves the subtle nature of her citrus flavors better than plastic.


Revival Food Hall, a 25,000-square food emporium in Chicago, has launched an ambitious recycling program that includes discounts for consumers who bring their own cups, a bag-by-request only policy, and a partnership with a local organization called Open Water Aluminum, to serve water in aluminum cans that can be reused or recycled. All 17 food concepts are also required to use eco-friendly and compostable containers. Revival’s general manager Tim Wickes estimates the food hall has reduced 94,000 water bottles over a year, and that Revival’s need for plastics of all varieties has plummeted.


Adam Rosenbaum, CEO of the multi-unit Meatball Shop concept in New York City, puts eco-friendly packages through a gauntlet of delivery tests to ensure they can take the heat. Will a package leak if a driver flips it over? Do lips and lids snap tight? Does it hold food in place, preserving an appealing look? Rosenbaum recommends operators lean on the abundance of different shapes, sizes and bowls, so that to-go customers can experience the same look and feel as in-restaurant diners.


At Mason in Miami, owner Renee Nasajon sends to-go orders out in a blend of bagasse (a byproduct from sugarcane) and wheat straw packaging, which the company claims will often disintegrate in less than 30 days in a commercial composting facility, or 90 days via backyard composting system. Nasajon says the added 10 to 20% cost of the packaging has been outweighed by positive feedback from her eco-friendly customers. At Salud, Almaguer uses compostable bags and plant-based containers that offer the look and durability of plastic.


Sometimes a strawless cup does the trick. Other times, it depends on the concept. At Noosh in San Francisco, Beverage director Andrew Meltzer found hay straws, which cost as low as 3 cents each, hold up in cold drinks, while Salud buys corn-based polylactic acid (PLA) straws from Ingeo in bulk to pair with its smoothies. But Rusty Pelican in Key Biscayne, Florida, adopted a paper straw-by-request policy and created a straw-free cocktail to honor its link to the “Miami Is Not Plastic” campaign. “You have to take it step by step,” says Wickes. “Not everyone wants to be educated while they are dining, but we can all do some basic things to help out. We can be a kick starter for something good.”


Here are some eco-terms to know:


The pulp that remains after renewable and sustainable raw materials such as bamboo, reed, rice, hemp and sugarcane are processed.


Solid materials that break down as a result of natural bacteria activity and disappear into the environment over a period of time. 

Commercially compostable

Solid materials that decay under controlled conditions in a commercial composting facility utilizing microorganisms, humidity and temperature. This is different than backyard or home composting, which turns organic waste such as leaves, food scraps and lawn clippings into a soil-like fertilizer.

Plastarch material (PSM) 

Resin made with various biodegradable materials and starch filler.  

Polylactic acid (PLA) 

Biopolymer made from plants that can be formed into linings for paper cups and other products, such as hinged to-go containers often used for cold sandwiches and salads.

Post-consumer recycled content

Materials such as corrugated boxes, newspapers and bottles that have been recovered and reprocessed after initial use by consumers. 


Materials that can be reclaimed or reprocessed into new products.

Renewable and sustainable resources

Naturally occurring raw materials such as bamboo, reed, rice, hemp and sugarcane that can be transplanted, harvested and replanted.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides at www.ftc.gov

5 Environmentally Friendly Products

Folia by Eco-Products

Green factor: Made from 100 percent renewable and reclaimed sugarcane fibers (bagasse). Commercially compostable.

Features: Tear-away flaps for easy access to food. Side flaps hold condiments and cutlery. For hot or cold foods; microwave- and freezer-safe. 

Sizes: Six sizes from 12- to 84-ounce capacity.

More info: www.ecoproducts.com

Greenware On-The-Go by Fabri-Kal

Green factor: Made from a polylactic acid (PLA) resin derived from renewable plant sources. Commercially compostable.

Features: Showcases grab-and-go food combinations like fresh fruit, dip and sandwiches and salads. Compact shape maximizes shelf space.

Sizes: Two-, three- and four-cell designs with one lid that fits all. 

More info: www.fabri-kal.com

Wheatstraw Fiber Take-Out Boxes by World Centric

Green factor: An all-in-one container made from wheatstraw fiber and bagasse, a renewable resource. Wheatstraw fiber containers with polylactic acid (PLA) lids also are available. Commercially compostable.  

Features: Microwave- and freezer-safe. Clear compostable lid also available.  

Sizes: Wheatstraw fiber containers available in a variety of sizes.

More info: www.worldcentric.org

Bio-Plus View by Fold-Pak

Green factor: Made from 100 percent recycled paperboard with a minimum of 35 percent post-consumer content. Polyethylene liner and window.

Features: New anti-fog window. Leak-resistant and microwaveable. 

Sizes: Five sizes ranging from 26- to 96-ounce capacity.

More info: www.fold-pak.com

EarthChoice by Pactiv Corporation

Green factor: Made from sugarcane (bagasse) and bamboo, which are sustainable, renewable resources. Commercially compostable.  

Features: Polylactic acid (PLA)-lined soup and hot cups, and hinged to-go containers. Embossed lid helps convey sustainable message. 

Sizes: Variety of sizes. 

More info: www.pactiv.com