by C. Vernon Henry
January 31, 2018
When picking up a to-go order or waiting on food delivery, people think about many things: I hope they got the order right! Will this still be warm when I unpause my Netflix? One day, I’m going to try something other than the Pad Thai…
The type of container the food will be served in – let alone the material of the packaging or the utensils included – might barely (if ever) occur to hungry consumers. But with over half of America’s food budget going toward eating out, chances are consumers might want to start forming opinions on the matter.
Following are three reasons you might want to think twice about foodservice disposables – an industry that will be worth $22 billion in 2021.
The packaging items that hold our prepared foods are designed for use spanning mere minutes or even just seconds before they are disposed of; however, their single-use nature doesn’t mean they are flimsy or low quality. In fact, after washing, many of them can be reused into perpetuity, like Tupperware.
As restaurants want a customer’s order to arrive problem-free, sturdy plastic containers are increasingly common. Such durability comes at a price, though, as restaurants spent nearly $1 billion on these containers in 2016. The higher value-added durability increases versatility, as many are suitable for the freezer and microwave – and thus useable beyond their original employ.
While two different packages may serve the same purpose, the materials used to produce them can vary wildly – especially in terms of disposability (or lack thereof).
As consumers grow more mindful about where their waste ends up, they tend to seek out packaging that is more environmentally friendly than products made with traditional materials like polystyrene. While most curbside recycling programs will take paper and plastic containers, polystyrene foam clamshells and cups are a bit trickier. Fewer recycling options exist for foam. And many find their way to landfills, or bodies of water.
Innovative, compostable materials like bagasse, molded pulp, and polylactic acid made from bio based materials or recycled newspaper are seeing more widespread use in disposable foodservice packaging production. As of yet, few of these products will degrade in backyard compost piles, but municipal facilities can usually turn them back into the earth they came from. Though currently only a small portion of the foodservice market, compostable containers will enjoy 10% annual growth rates through 2021.
The food within a to-go container will always be more important than the packaging without. But as consumers become more discerning about what goes in their food, it stands to reason they will also pay more attention to what their food goes in. Foodservice establishments want the dishes they offer to reflect not only their image, but their values as well. As a result, carry-out packaging is becoming less of an afterthought.
Whether a pizza box, foil wrap, or french-fry carton, packaging matters. It can reduce your dining experience to a soggy, spilled mess or turn it into an Instagram-worthy event. It can also show a business’s concern for its environmental footprint, indicating that its decision-making reflects its values.
Furthermore, consumers are more likely to blame the restaurant for any packaging mishaps, regardless of who delivered their food. To court regulars, restaurateurs need not only ensure their food is delicious – they must also specify single-use products strong enough to hold it.
So, next time you are enjoying take-out or deciding where to eat, consider the packaging. Think not only about its characteristics (e.g., disposability, durability, reusability), but also how it impacts your dining experience. Consider it food…and packaging…for thought.
For more information on trends, market share, products, and major producers in the disposable foodservice industry, check out The Freedonia Group's new study Foodservice Single-Use Products in the US.
Chad Henry is an analyst at The Freedonia Group, where he writes studies focused on the packaging industry.
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