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Disposable food cutlery: Is there a benefit to offering it?

Takeout food will continue to be a prominent and important part of the commercial dining scene in 2023 and beyond. Research shows that restaurant owners around the world can expect up to 2.64 billion users of online food delivery services by 2027. 

Beyond this, consumers are always looking for flexible food solutions: eating meals on the go, or outside the physical location of a food business. This has caused many food vendors and restaurant owners to question whether to provide them with disposable food cutlery. 

Some restaurants automatically provide this cutlery, along with extra condiments, and napkins. However, many operators do not, citing preventing waste and additional costs as the main reasons. 

So, do restaurants actually benefit from offering disposable cutlery, or is it an unnecessary waste they can do without? 

The environmental impact on single-use items

Traditional single-use items are made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals, also known as petrochemicals. They are designed to be disposed of directly after use – often, within minutes. The majority of single-use items are commonly used for packaging and service ware and include plastic bottles, product or food wrappers, straws, and shopping bags. 

These petrochemicals can take around 1,000 years to degrade. More so, they break down into microplastics, which can find themselves in food sources and water sources. Microplastics can have a detrimental impact on local ecosystems, with studies showing their presence in the stomachs of many different types of wildlife. Additionally, microplastics have been found in the air, tap water, sea salt, bottled water, beer, and fish that humans eat.

Almost 100 million plastic utensils are discarded daily in the US alone. Research also shows that an estimated 40 billion plastic forks, spoons, and knives are used and thrown away each year. 

While the impact of disposable food cutlery may seem minor, the negative effects of regular use can quickly add up. 

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Disposable food cutlery: How are businesses preventing waste?

One of the most effective ways to stop the use of disposable single-use plastics is to have proper legislation that effectively bans the ability to use them. 

Take Chicago, for example. In 2021, the ordinance restricted the automatic offering of disposable food cutlery. Instead, customers must specifically request utensils such as knives, forks, spoons, and napkins in takeaway delivery or carryout scenarios. Additionally, takeaway food cutlery has become an add-on option on many mobile food delivery apps. 

The idea behind this is that single-use cutlery is only provided when absolutely needed. While this is a highly effective first step, some believe an outright ban would be more successful.

Deciding to make disposable food cutlery optional can help restaurants and food vendors lower the environmental impact of the business. Additionally, it can help them save on packaging costs. 

Another way business operators could make a change is to switch to recyclable cutlery. While this may come at a higher initial cost, it can save money over time, as the utensils are only given out when specifically requested. 

Some brands have also tried to reward customers who choose not to have fast-food cutlery delivered with their meals. For instance, a few establishments offer additional free items or points toward loyalty programmes and discounts as incentives to prevent unnecessary waste. 

By making disposable food cutlery less ‘visible’ to consumers, restaurants can nudge them away from expecting single-use items with each order. In turn, this can make a significant difference to the amount of waste created by the takeaway food industry, as well as save brands money. 

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Pros and cons of disposable food cutlery

An obvious pro for offering disposable cutlery is the convenience it offers customers in their ability to enjoy food anywhere. Research shows that 58% of customers occasionally purchase to-go snacks or meals, which often require cutlery. 

Second, disposable cutlery is relatively cheap and easily accessible. Compared to some sustainable and recyclable alternatives, the relatively low cost of traditional plastic cutlery appeals to many. 

Third, disposable food cutlery can be branded and customised to an extension of the business’s personality. In turn, this can help with brand mindshare when a consumer is not eating on the premises.

The major con of disposable cutlery is the drastically negative effects it can have on environmental stability and human health. More so, it is an added cost for the business to keep stocked, especially if it is something customers always have access to or it is a standard offering with takeout orders. 

More so, disposable cutlery can be flimsy and feel cheap, and the perception of this can rub off on the customer’s perceived value of their meal. 

It seems the cons of single-use plastic food cutlery outweigh the pros regarding the long-lasting impact they have on the environment. Beyond this, more consumers want to support brands that have the environment as a top priority in their business practices. 

How can your business reduce takeaway packaging waste?

The best way to help fight the negative impact of disposable cutlery when you need to use it is to invest in compostable or recyclable alternatives. Food utensils made from materials such as bamboo, wood, palm leaves, and bioplastics, like polylactic acid (PLA), are much better for the environment. 

These materials break down faster than traditional plastics and leave no microplastics or unwanted chemicals in their wake. 

In niche situations, where consumers decide to eat their takeout meals at the establishment, stainless steel cutlery can be an effective option. Staff need only recover and wash the utensils once the consumer is done. 

However, for several businesses, food cutlery options made from sustainable materials can be the most effective solution. Factors such as brand recognition and customer loyalty can benefit from this positive change.  

Many consumers are still used to disposable food cutlery and maintain an expectation to have access to single-use utensils for takeout meals. However, with proper communication and education, restaurants can make a change that positively affects not only customers but also the environment.