For Restaurants, It’s Not Easy Being Green
Dinner was pure artisanal perfection, at a chef-driven restaurant in a repurposed historic building, with an inventive menu featuring organic, sustainable, and locally grown ingredients. Wanting to save those last bites for tomorrow’s lunch, you ask for a to-go box. When the server returns with a Styrofoam clamshell, you’re stunned by the disconnect: your green meal living its final hours in plastic.
Minneapolis-based Trio Supply Company gets it: They provide takeout containers and other disposables for thousands of local restaurants, schools, and other foodservice businesses. But salesperson Dorothy Wicklund has seen a pattern: “Many [businesses] start out with eco-friendly even though they cost more, because they want to do the right thing,” Wicklund says. “But after five or six months, they’re seeing that [the] biodegradable clamshell costs 28 cents per piece, while a regular clamshell costs nine, so they end up switching.”
Independent Minneapolis skyway lunch restaurant Good to Go guesses it uses 100-plus clear plastic clamshells a day for salads and other fare; most are in the trash an hour or less after use. Through an entire year of operations, the added cost of GTG going biodegradable would be more than $5,000, based on Trio’s numbers.
Despite the obstacles, Trio carries hundreds of types of biodegradables from a number of suppliers, including Plymouth-based Ultra Green, Inc. Cal Krupa, co-founder of Ultra Green, estimates that eco-friendly packaging represents less than 5 percent of the roughly $10 billion foodservice packaging industry, but sees the segment growing rapidly.
Biodegradable packaging is not just the province of specialty purveyors. Giant foodservice concerns Sysco and U.S. Foods, which supply most of the nation’s chain eateries, offer dozens of options. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2013 Restaurant Industry Forecast, 62 percent of fine-dining restaurateurs and 57 percent of casual-dining operators surveyed said they plan to adopt more environmentally friendly packaging, driven in part by consumer demand and a desire to protect the environment.
But in an era when restaurants are bracing for a higher minimum wage and new health care mandates, biodegradable containers look like they may have to wait a while longer to become the default option.