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Fast-food cutlery: Should it be standard or optional?

According to a recent report from the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, there are currently between 75 and 199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean. The report also forecasts that by 2040 this amount will have almost tripled. 

Often crafted from unrecyclable plastics, fast-food cutlery significantly contributes to the plastic waste crisis. Despite this, the global disposable cutlery market grew to $10.1 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $16.2 billion by 2031. 

This raises a pertinent question: should these utensils be standard or optional? 

Making disposable cutlery an option to reduce waste

In an effort to reduce waste, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests consumers take only what they need when buying takeout. This is because the majority of condiment packets and napkins end up in waste bins.

Beyond this, a recent report found that the US uses over 100 million plastic utensils every day. Some analysts estimate the US generates around 40 billion plastic utensils a year. 

However, solutions are within reach. For instance, in 2021, Los Angeles enacted an ordinance requiring restaurants with over 26 employees to remove all single-use disposable food ware accessories. 

Essentially, businesses can no longer include the following items unless specifically requested by customers:

  • Utensils, such as chopsticks, plastic knives, forks, and spoons. 
  • Condiment packets.
  • All other disposable straws, stirrers, splash sticks, cocktail sticks, and toothpicks. 
  • Napkins and wet wipes.
  • Cup lids, sleeves, or beverage trays.

Additionally, in May 2023, a crucial aspect of Los Angeles County’s regulation on single-use plastic containers came into effect. Full-service restaurants in unincorporated regions swapped single-use plastic items, such as cups and cutlery, for more sustainable options, including reusable containers and compostable utensils.

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What if we apply these changes to fast-food delivery?

The principles underlying successful regulation in Los Angeles can certainly be extended to fast-food and delivery apps. Notably, there are a few potential strategies businesses can employ:

Encouraging customer choice

Similar to a scheme implemented by several of Singapore’s largest food delivery companies, establishments can give customers the option of receiving single-use cutlery with their order or not. This simple step allows consumers who already possess reusable utensils at home to eliminate unnecessary single-use waste.

Incentivising green choices

One idea that has proved effective is to offer consumers incentives. Rewarding those who opt out of single-use items with loyalty points or discounts can foster more eco-friendly behaviour among customers. This strategy has been highly effective in supermarkets that offer discounts for bringing reusable shopping bags.

Educating consumers

Both restaurants and delivery apps can use their platforms to educate patrons about the environmental impact of single-use plastics. Beyond this, the platforms can also promote the establishment’s sustainable alternatives. 

An informed consumer is more likely to make environmentally friendly decisions. Notably, there are several ways companies can persuade consumers to make the switch. For example, delivery apps can include statistics about the environmental impact of single-use plastics.

Legislation

Governments may consider enacting rules similar to those of the Los Angeles County ordinance. For instance, it could be a requirement for delivery apps to opt out of providing cutlery automatically unless specifically requested by customers.

Implementing such measures can significantly reduce the plastic waste involved in fast-food deliveries. Furthermore, it can foster more sustainable practices within this rapidly growing industry.

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Promoting sustainable alternatives: The best option for restaurants

Restaurants that have partnered with delivery apps could transition towards offering compostable or biodegradable cutlery options. For instance, some eateries in European cities are already using utensils made from bamboo and other renewable resources.

As the global emphasis on reducing plastic waste intensifies, it is projected the worldwide bamboo products market will grow at a healthy 6.0% CAGR. There may be several factors driving the shift towards bamboo utensils.  

Cost-effectiveness

Bamboo is relatively more cost-effective than plastic and cheaper than wood. This makes it the ideal choice for individuals or businesses operating on tight budgets. Despite their cost-effectiveness, bamboo utensils do not compromise durability or functionality.

Heat, stain, and water resistance

What’s noteworthy is bamboo’s ability to resist heat, stains, and water. This innate resilience makes bamboo products easy to maintain and clean, further enhancing their appeal for both commercial and domestic use.

Non-abrasive nature

The non-abrasive nature of bamboo cooking utensils ensures they won’t scratch the protective coating on non-stick pans or damage high-quality cookware. This attribute not only extends the lifespan of other kitchen tools but also contributes to cost savings in the long run.

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What makes bamboo so sustainable?

According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, bamboo’s sustainability is attributed to several inherent properties. 

  • This fast-growing plant matures into a hard and flexible biomaterial within just a few years of planting, allowing for quick replenishment.
  • The self-regenerating nature of bamboo means that once matured, stems will regenerate after harvesting without requiring replanting. Therefore, well-managed bamboo plantations can provide a reliable and sustainable source of income in remarkably short periods.
  • The minimalistic requirements for harvesting and processing make it accessible even to those lacking advanced machinery or electricity. The use of simple handheld tools is sufficient, making bamboo an economical and environmentally friendly option. 

This ease of access, combined with the plant’s rapid growth and self-regenerating capabilities, underscores bamboo’s role as a sustainable alternative to conventional plastic utensils.

In addition to the numerous benefits already outlined, bamboo’s natural aesthetic further enhances its appeal. Fast-food chains can leverage this characteristic to enrich the look of their utensils, thereby adding a touch of nature to their offerings. 

The fast-food industry is at a crucial juncture where it can significantly contribute to reducing plastic waste and promoting sustainability. As seen in Los Angeles County’s recent regulations and successful implementation of alternative solutions, this transition is not just feasible but also beneficial for all stakeholders involved. It’s time that the fast-food industry globally responds to this call for action and embraces a more sustainable future.