Skip to main content

With today’s current pandemic, restaurants are solely surviving off their take-out orders. And with an increase of carryout from restaurants, comes an increase of plastics that will most likely end up in the garbage. Almost half of Americans say that it is difficult to recycle properly, so this means most of the plastic containers from take-out orders are actually being sent to a landfill.

In response, many restaurants need to look at new eco-friendly packaging options that instruct the consumer on how to properly dispose of it. Sustainable packaging is not only better for the environment, but it’s better for your brand image and might even save you some money.

Why should restaurant owners look into sustainable packaging in the first place?

Reduce waste – Did you know that 30% of municipal solid waste is made up of packaging waste? This is any product that is used to wrap or protect goods, such as food. Restaurants play a big role in this as you not only contribute to waste from items higher up in your supply chain, but also most of your take-out boxes, bags, and containers.

Improve your brand image – In a report from Nielsen, Millennials are about 1.5 times as likely to purchase a more sustainable product from you when compared to similar competitors. With this being said, advertising about new eco-friendly packaging for take-out can help improve your brand’s image as well as sway customers to make the right choice.

How to choose the right packaging for your restaurant?

There are three categories of sustainable packaging: recyclables, compostables, and reusables. While they all provide benefits to your restaurant, it can be hard to pick which type is right for you depending on the kind of food and how your customers will recycle these containers.


This one is probably the easiest to understand. Products like aluminum and plastic, such as number 5 plastic (polypropylene) or number 1 (polyethylene) are the most common. Number 5 plastic is better for keeping food warm compared to other choices, which most restaurants should think about as well when switching their packaging. Although Styrofoam is technically a plastic, most places do not accept it as there are many issues with how it can be recycled. If recycling is what you choose, know that the container should have a clear recycling number where the consumer can see it, as it is up to them to properly wash and recycle it.


This option is more complex and confusing for people to comprehend. If your packaging is labeled as “compostable” it must be disposed of the correct way. Most people think if something is compostable, then they can just throw it away with the rest of the trash. That is actually not the case. Compostable items are specifically designed to break down in a commercial compost facility that provides the right environment for it to compost in a short amount of time. This means that customers must dispose of the packaging correctly in order for this option to actually be an “eco-friendly” solution. With this being said, you should find out about the range of access to compost facilities in your area. Some examples of materials that are compostable are paper and polylactic acid (PLA). Paper bags are good for dry foods, or nothing that can leak into the paper. If the paper becomes saturated, for example, with grease, then it is neither compostable or recyclable, which defeats the whole purpose. PLA acts like plastic, but it can be composted as it is made from organic materials, like corn starch. This material has better thermal conductivity then regular plastics, which makes it great for storing hot food. Compostable containers are not only healthy for the Earth, but they’re better for the consumer as well because they contain fewer chemicals that could leach into your customers’ food. But, this is usually a more expensive option compared to others.


This option is the most sustainable choice as you wouldn’t be spending money on containers and nothing would go to waste because the customer would bring their own. Just Salad, a fast casual restaurant chain, sells a $1 reusable bowl for customers to bring back and forth instead of using plastic containers. And as an incentive for customers to continue to use the bowl, Just Salad offers free toppings when you use their bowl. This is what made the program work and what got them awarded the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WasteWise Regional Award in 2017. Now this does sound like the best option, but your restaurant is responsible for food safety and sanitation, so with reusable containers it is up to the customer to make sure it is clean.

You’ve picked the right packaging for your restaurant, now what?

Making your take-out process more sustainable doesn’t stop with just changing your containers. It’s important to focus on not only the presentation of your food, but also the amount of single-use plastic used when providing take-out and deliveries for customers.

When customers dine-in, the food is served at the right temperature and looks presentable. This is usually not the case when someone orders the same meal, but for take-out or delivery. Since this is their first impression of your restaurant, before even eating the food, it’s important to make sure it looks presentable. When the food appears as if it was just tossed in the container, the restaurant seems poorly managed and careless. Additionally, when preparing food make sure items like bread (or anything that can get soggy), are separate from the rest of the meal. Let the customer assemble foods like hamburgers, tacos, and sandwiches to ensure freshness.

Take-out meals also come with both utensils and extra condiments that not everyone needs, so customers end up throwing them away. In order to decrease waste and save yourself some money, ask the customer if they would like these items before assuming everyone needs them. And when your customers do ask for these, keep your sustainable image going with napkins made from recycled materials and compostable utensils.

Lastly, you can simplify your take-out menu by limiting the number of options available. This can help decrease food waste as restaurants produce 22 billion to 33 billion pounds of food waste each year. With different varieties of similar foods, like potatoes or mushrooms, you can buy one variety in bulk to save money and decrease your food waste. Make sure to also buy take-out containers in bulk as this can decrease the plastic and packaging waste.

About the Author

Grace Austvold

GBB Green Ambassador

Grace Austvold is a content writer for Green Business Bureau who is passionate about sustainable supply chain management practices. She is currently an undergraduate student at UW-Madison pursuing a degree in Operations and Technology Management along with a certificate in sustainability. She loves learning about sustainable everyday products and ideas as well as practicing yoga in her free time..

Grace Austvold

Author Grace Austvold

More posts by Grace Austvold

Leave a Reply