Tallula’s Restaurant in Santa Monica, California, prioritizes buying seasonal produce from local farmers who practice regenerative agriculture to minimize its ecological footprint. For takeout and delivery orders, the staff packs tacos and heaps of steaming nachos in recyclable aluminum boxes and biodegradable paper bowls.
But sourcing quality, affordable, eco-friendly containers can be difficult, said Monica Heffron, executive project manager for the restaurant group that owns Tallula’s. They can be pricey and some simply don’t hold food as well as conventional plastic ones.
“It’s not impossible for restaurants to implement more sustainable practices and it’s something that we have tried to do as much as possible,” said Heffron.
Lots of restaurants like Tallula’s struggle with how to reduce the environmental impact of takeout, as do customers. JYBE wants to make it easier for both groups.
The Los Angeles-based company helps restaurants make the switch to sustainable packaging while giving environmentally conscious diners a quick way to find restaurants that will box up their orders with the Earth in mind. The JYBE web app, launched in September, features several hundred restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with plans to expand nationwide.
“By next year, there will be about 400 million tons of plastic produced on Earth,” said Paul Kradin, JYBE co-founder and chief sustainability officer. About half of that includes single-use items — including flatware and serving containers for restaurant takeout and delivery, which has ramped up significantly since the start of the pandemic. Some 42% of restaurants added delivery options this year, and DoorDash has seen a 110% increase in sales.
Phasing out single-use plastic could reduce demand for new plastics 40% over the next decade and cut plastic waste 57%, according to estimates from the World Wildlife Fund. Kradin wants JYBE to be part of the solution as it helps restaurants switch to plastic alternatives.
The Dirty Work Of Going Clean
Finding replacements for disposable plastics is not as easy as it might sound.
For one, not all eco-friendly packaging is created equal. In fact, it’s not even all eco-friendly. For instance, the increasingly popular fiber bowls used at lunch chains all over the country are likely coated with potentially hazardous chemicals that keep them from getting soggy but leach into waterways and soil and never break down. (Hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.”)
Compostable cups, plates and cutlery typically need to be sent to industrial facilities to actually become compost — and that doesn’t always happen.
“They will only break down through a very specialized process that most cities don’t even have access to,” said Alison Diamond, JYBE’s CEO and also a co-founder. “Even if they do, there’s still no guarantee that the consumer will do the right things with those materials.”
People are likely to toss a compostable cup into the trash, which isn’t markedly different from doing the same thing with a plastic cup, since it won’t turn to compost in a landfill. Others may mistakenly put it in the plastic recycling bin, which can contaminate the whole stream.
To steer restaurant owners away from choosing to-go ware that can’t deliver on its sustainability promises, JYBE maintains a curated list of sustainable items that it has endorsed. Importantly, said Diamond, the company wants to help businesses avoid “greenwashing,” a common marketing practice that makes products appear to be eco-friendly when they’re really not.
“Restaurants are focusing on the thing that they are there for: making food for and taking care of their customers,” said Diamond. “We want to make it easier for them to select products that are better for their customers and the planet.”
JYBE takes quality and price into account when choosing which products to recommend to restaurants (the company links out to stores where restaurants can buy packaging, occasionally earning a small commission). Some plastic alternatives simply don’t hold food as well, particularly hot, soupy dishes or dressing-covered salads that can weaken or destroy the material.
“If a guest is injured or has property damaged as a result of a container spilling its contents, it’s the restaurant that can face legal action,” said Heffron. “Until the market has better eco-friendly options available that are safe to use, it can be hard for restaurants to fully adopt switching to these.”
Paying Up And Paying It Forward
Cost can also hold restaurants back from making the switch. Fiber-based containers and wood or bamboo utensils tend to be more expensive than plastic, and even in lavish times, margins in the restaurant industry could be very thin.
During the squeeze of coronavirus, it may be even harder for restaurants to prioritize spending more on new to-go packaging.
Kradin recognizes that more sustainable products are often slightly more expensive for restaurants, and suggests some restaurants could charge slightly more to offset the cost. Heffron agrees but worries that customers wouldn’t appreciate the upcharge. Surveys suggest they might be amenable.
“The research shows that, especially with younger people, people are willing to pay more for a sustainable product,” said Josh Prigge, founder of Sustridge Sustainability Consulting.
JYBE and other companies are betting customers will choose to patronize restaurants that are trying to do the right thing for the environment, even if it occasionally costs them a bit more. A JYBE consumer survey found that 73% of respondents prefer shopping at businesses that prioritize sustainability.
JYBE helps these hungry, environmentally conscious people find restaurants like Tallula’s that will package up their grub in an eco-friendly fashion. The app rates restaurants based on how much of their packaging is “Earth friendly,” using reports from customers of the types of containers their orders are delivered in. (Tallula’s is among JYBE’s high-rated “Takeout Titleholders.”)
Users can scroll through the options in their area, then click to order from a restaurant directly or through a delivery service. JYBE just went live in Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; Denver and Boulder, Colorado.
For people outside those cities, ocean conservation nonprofit Surfrider Foundation maintains a database of nearly 700 restaurants nationwide that commit to a shortlist of sustainable practices, including not using Styrofoam containers or plastic bags for takeout orders.
Eschewing disposable packages altogether, a handful of startups, such as Go Box in Portland, Oregon, supply restaurants with reusable takeout containers that patrons can return later. For no added cost, New York City’s Deliver Zero drops off meals from dozens of restaurants in the company’s tough plastic containers — the delivery person will take the boxes from your last order. Even Burger King is planning to test reusable packaging.
Restaurants have lagged in the movement toward sustainability, Prigge said, but can look beyond single-use plastic at other parts of their operations, such as where they buy their food, as a way to catch up. That includes sourcing locally grown food and ensuring that the producers they source from are paying their workers fair wages. Restaurants should also try to reduce their own food waste, he said, which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s a really valuable approach to not just focus on this one issue, but to have a fully comprehensive approach to sustainability,” Prigge said.
Kradin emphasized that individuals can support eco-friendly businesses and reduce their own plastic use to do their part.
“Given that we’re not asking anyone to change their diet, we’re just asking them to make a slightly smarter choice about which restaurant they want to order their taco from, it’s a really smart way for people to make a contribution,” he said.
Heffron agrees that small climate battles can be won in our day-to-day lives.
“If businesses and the general public embrace making better, more eco-friendly choices on a large scale, that can have a big impact,” she said. “And that process can start with individuals and individual businesses like restaurants.”
HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.