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Business Officer Magazine

Compostable or Reusable?

What are the best containers for takeout food on campus? Here are some considerations.

By Karla Hignite

Remember the paper versus plastic debate? In today's to-go food culture, the biggest choice may be between biodisposables and reusable containers. Here's how the two options work.

Call It "Food on Food"

Now available are plates, bowls, cups-and even utensils-that are made from 100 percent biodegradable materials, including wheat and sugar cane fiber, potato starch, and vegetable oil. These convenience items are often microwaveable and freezable, and after use they can be composted along with food waste. However, to expedite their decomposition, the items typically need to be shredded or broken into smaller pieces, allowing microbes to eat through the materials more quickly.

To meet Seattle's requirements that all packaging materials be compostable by July 2010, the University of Washington (UW) has introduced a complete line of compostable products. In addition to dinnerware and hot drink cups, the university recently added a coated paper cup for cold drinks. The new product, pilot-tested at the UW campus, was developed in partnership with the Coca-Cola Co., International Paper, and Cedar Grove Composting. While paper is generally considered biodegradable, the coatings that make cold cups liquid resistant have traditionally been petrochemical-based and, therefore, don't meet strict composting requirements. The UW cups have a similar waxy coating, but one that is derived instead from plants.

Round-Trip Containers

In addition to new products made from biodegradable materials (and many other sustainability initiatives that you'll read about in "Green Cuisine" in the June-July 2009 print issue of Business Officer), a concept catching on-especially at some larger institutions-is that of reusable plastic food containers, says Anthony Owens, senior director of corporate citizenship partnerships and communications for Sodexo. Similar to the reusable mug programs that a number of colleges and universities already have in place, meal to-go containers used by students on the run can be returned for reuse.

The University of Florida, Gainesville, recently introduced a program to minimize the waste trail of approximately 158,000 disposable containers it generates on an annual basis. Three eating venues on campus offer students the option of reusable to-go containers that they can return to any of the locations, at the students' convenience. Those who participate in the program sign up at any food register using their identification card. A $7.00 deposit allows customers to check out up to two containers at a time and is fully refunded at the end of the year if all containers have been returned.

One key to the success of a reusable container program is to assure customers about the sanitation of the process, says Owens. "The dishwasher-safe containers go through the same cleaning process as the dinnerware used inside campus dining halls."

Nothing Is Perfect

So, which is better: compostable or reusable? Both options help reduce the amount of polystyrene foam and plastic entering the waste stream, where these materials remain largely intact for the next several thousand years.

From a nonfood perspective, biodisposables are a great concept and offer a good alternative to plastics, says Christopher Stemen, senior director, sustainability and environmental stewardship, ARAMARK Higher Education. Yet, instead of changing the product, he believes the focus should be placed on overall reduction in use. "The idea of creating disposables that require food resources to manufacture them isn't a long-term sustainable solution, especially in light of concerns about global food supplies," says Stemen.

ARAMARK recently finalized a pilot reusable container program at five partner institutions, including the University of Florida, Gainesville; Baylor University, Waco, Texas; and three institutions in North Carolina-the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Peace College, Raleigh; and Salem College, Winston-Salem. "The reality is that take-out food is in high demand these days," says Stemen. "The goal is to come full circle with your process in a way that has the least overall impact."

KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor to Business Officer.

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