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Tips, tools, and case studies to help food service providers go disposable-free

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Photo of DeliverZero’s reusable container service

More food service operators are switching to reusables for dine-in and implementing innovative solutions to offer reusable cups and containers for take-out. They’re finding that customers love them, they’re better for the planet, and they’re better for business. Diners are ready to see their favorite local restaurants ditch single-use food and beverage wares for durable, washable, and reusable alternatives that are designed to be used thousands of times. 

If you are a restaurant owner, finding and implementing the right tableware for your operation can be a complicated landscape to navigate. You are most likely overwhelmed, with little time to consider a variety of factors—like cost, material, shape, and size; presentation of your food; dishwashing capacity; and labor. Check out the following resources, tips, and tools to support your efforts in reducing single-use and transitioning to reuse.  

Cost savings

Food service operators tend to use a variety of single-use products because they’ve just always done things that way, and change can be hard. After years of working to certify food businesses for reusable practices, I learned that many operators do care about how much waste—especially plastic waste—they generate day to day but have a perception that reusables are cost prohibitive. Ironically, businesses pay twice for single-use foodware: first, to procure thousands of items weekly, and second, to have them hauled away as waste. That’s no good for a business’s bottom line.

The data from hundreds of ReThink Disposable case studies show that making the switch from single-use to reuse for on-site dining always ends up saving money—100% of the time—even when you take into account the set-up and ongoing costs. 

With the purchase of around $500 of reusables, operators reach their ROI in a few short months and can expect to save on average $3,000 – $22,000 annually, while also increasing operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. And approximately 50% of businesses implement voluntary reuse solutions without a mechanized dishwasher. We also know that reusables become cheaper than disposable items after a few uses, with examples like:

  • 12-oz. glass cup: cheaper than disposables after just 4 uses
  • 12-oz. ceramic mug: cheaper than disposables after just 12 uses
  • 9-inch ceramic plate: cheaper than disposables after just 18 uses
  • Utensil set: cheaper than disposables after just 16 uses

Case studies

Here you can see how similar business types—take a typical taqueria, for example—have made significant business impacts through a switch to reusables, from dramatic cost savings to huge waste reduction.

  • La Victoria Taqueria in San Jose, California: This business has five locations throughout the city, and the owner transitioned to reusable cups and stainless steel utensils for dine-in customers. This eliminated 862,000 pieces of plastic, which totals four tons of waste. At the same time, the business owner’s net annual cost savings totaled over $24,000 when you combine the impact results from all five locations. 
  • El Metate in San Francisco: This business transitioned to reusable cutlery and salsa cups. The payback period was less than one month, and after that point, the owner saved over $8,000 per year by eliminating close to 500,000 pieces of single-use plastics. 
  • Taqueria Viva Mexico in Alameda, California: They transitioned to metal sauce cups for the salsa bar to replace all the plastic sauce cups and lids diners used onsite. This one simple change eliminated over 90,000 pieces of plastic and saved the business owner almost $1,000 per year. Product loss, which is a concern with smaller table wares, was very minimal because they affixed signage and removed the trash can off the floor of the restaurant. Diners placed dishes into a bus tub.

You can also check out a business video testimonial, like Gus’ Tacos in Los Angeles.

Considering a shift to reusable products? Check out Upstream’s simple reuse savings calculator to estimate the cost impact. The calculator page also includes a short list of distributors that sell reusable food and table wares, plus a resource that can help you identify products and pricing that work for your needs, like cost, function, style, and durability.

Photo of Dispatch Goods’ zero-waste container system bin

Environmental impact

With the planet in mind, operators try to procure the best foodware options, but that usually involves procuring “better” recyclable or compostable alternatives. Single-use foodware of any kind consumes valuable resources and generates global pollution both upstream—where the materials were extracted—to manufacturing, transit, and then finally downstream—where too much waste goes to landfill or litter is disposed of on our streets. And many foodware items are not really composted or recycled as they are marketed to be. Reusable foodware is the solution and beats fiber and plastic single-use alternatives in every environmental measure. For example:

  • Replacing disposable cups with reusables can save 16 pounds of solid waste and 281 gallons of water per day
  • Transitioning to reusables could reduce trash on our city streets by 67%
  • In just 15 washes, reusable containers beat out disposables for environmental impacts 

Learn more about the ways reusables win out over disposables, environmentally and by every other measure, by viewing Upstream’s comprehensive Reuse Wins Report.

Customer satisfaction 

When the pandemic began and take-out and delivery orders skyrocketed, everyone started to take note of the enormous amount of waste generated from packaging in food orders. In today’s climate-conscious world, zero waste matters to consumers. When restaurants take it upon themselves to do better, people take notice, share their experiences with others, and become regular patrons. What’s more, a meal is simply more enjoyable when it’s served on real, rather than disposable, foodware.

100% COVID-safe

The Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, California’s state and local public health departments, along with scientists across the globe agree: There is zero risk of transmission of COVID-19 from surface-to-surface contact.

Ways to take action

These solutions to help you save money and reduce waste can be implemented today:

  • Learn more about third party reuse and dishwashing services and visit Upstream’s Reuse Business Directory.
  • Your restaurant or school may qualify for financial assistance. Contact to learn more about how they subsidize the cost difference between single-use plastics and styrofoam and reusable alternatives.
  • Allow customers to Bring Your Own (BYO) cups and containers for refilling. Offer and clearly advertise a discount.
  • For take-out orders, check with the customer before throwing in fistfuls of condiment packets, napkins or utensils (check out Skip the Stuff). Most diners don’t need these items, and they become instant waste.
  • Concerned about dishwashing capacity? That’s common! Purchase enough tableware (ideally 150% of daily average transactions) to cover the lunch or dinner rush, so that sanitizing and washing can happen during lulls between service.
  • Worried about product loss? Consider removing the front-of-house trash cans and replacing them with a rolling cart and bus tubs. Or, install a magnetized rod in your trash receptacle to capture any metal utensils or ramekins accidentally thrown away.
  • Communicate your efforts to food service staff and customers wherever possible, like signage at the door, point of sale, tabletops and the waste station.
  • To encourage slowing down and dining in, or reusables for take-out orders, institute a charge for single-use disposables as a disincentive. It’s great if you offer a discount for reuse, but the charge will motivate the behavior change more than a discount.

We hope that these resources help you identify and implement reuse solutions at your establishment. And remember, you don’t have to rip the Band-aid off all at once! It is ok to try a phased-in approach: Take a few actions, normalize it with your staff and customers, and once that feels solid, take the next few actions.

Photos provided by Upstream

About the author

Samantha Sommer brings close to 15 years of zero waste industry experience specializing in source reduction, business innovation, and social change. Before joining Upstream as the director of business innovation, Samantha directed the award-winning ReThink Disposable campaign for the national non-profits Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund. She oversaw the certification of hundreds of food service operations transitioning from single use to reusable food ware with measurable source reduction impacts. In her current role, Samantha works closely with partner communities and businesses to disrupt disposability in food service and co-create conditions for reusable systems to thrive. She is developing a suite of services for those that need tools, training, consultation, and cost-benefit modeling to support their transition.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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