Sustainable packaging

From the December 2022 print edition

When it comes to making sustainable packaging decisions, choices can be overwhelming, like climbing an information mountain, only to wonder, why are we struggling to understand the marketplace and how to make the right choices?

In the campus food service environment at the University of Guelph, serving up to 25,000 meals per day, choosing the right packaging is important. Landfill waste can affect local and municipal waste streams, the environment and public perception. Waste from coffee cups, takeout triangles, food wraps, and clamshell containers adds up. Depending on the municipality, certain disposables don’t fit into the right waste stream containers, based on the manufacturing designations on the product. Ask questions to find out if what you are purchasing adheres to your municipality’s waste stream to gauge what’s acceptable.

Consumers want the convenience of food to go so procurement’s role and consumer purchasing choices are a double- edged sword. Our goal is to nourish our students, yet we also see ourselves as sustainability educators and advocates for solutions.

We look at all packaging options when deciding how best to serve takeout food. It must allow food to be appealing while keeping it hot or cold. We strategize with our suppliers when packaging is too single-use or when there might be a better option.

One franchise partner approved a request to allow their product to be served on china plates, instead of in their disposable containers. This is a win for sustainability and now we offer customers the choice. We hope our educational campaign will help them think before they choose a disposable option.

Another supplier agreed to package their dessert product in bulk for our service needs, rather than single-use plastic containers. Working together, we are solving an additional waste problem so
it never enters the supply chain.

Of course, the model never works with 100 per cent accuracy, so fine tuning is needed. But suppliers seem willing to take note.

We’ve developed an educational marketing campaign to tell customers they have a choice when serving themselves (pay by weight self-serve helps to solve food waste) and we call our campaign “Choose to Reuse.” We’re showing customers that they can change how much disposable waste they create by choosing a reusable china plate with stainless steel cutlery, or a green food container.

We wash and sanitize all vessels in our commercial kitchens so customers must only return them.
This program is marketed on our social media channels and TV screens in our operations. Choosing the type of container is as important as the work that went into purchasing the food, preparing the dishes, and educating customers. It’s the first item from the 3R’s: reduce. We’re reducing unneeded packaging, while offering convenience.

Next is the circular economy concept to lead us to a waste-free future. The RPRA (Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority) is the regulator mandated by the Government of Ontario to enforce the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act. Through the legislation, manufacturers must account for and track waste for items they produce. For an end user, determining producer responsibility can be tricky, depending on who is deemed to have created the waste. We’re working with the university’s sustainability office to report on items where we’re determined to be the producer, but more important, how we work with our supply chain to reduce packaging before it gets to us.

Food service pack size is open to modification when it’s important to suppliers and works for procurement. For us foods can be bulk packed, as that is how they are consumed in back-of-house before moving to front-of-house. We’ve worked with our suppliers to fill cartons completely, fill skids for shipping, and change outer packing if transportation and safety concerns are met. All to reduce waste out the back door. Sometimes change can be as simple as asking, “How can we work together to change the way we do procurement to make it more sustainable and move towards a circular business model?” We ask that question a lot.

We’ve heard the expression, “Clean your Plate.” For 2023, we should add a new expression: “Green your Plate.” We must look at solutions to reduce packaging waste to dine-in or take-out. Yes, some people still choose a disposable option when dining in. Many suppliers offer environmentally friendly options. The key is knowing if they are a fit for your waste or recycle streams. We are eager to work with colleagues at other universities and colleges across the country to solve these issues. That goes for our customers as well. We welcome comments and solutions, and how they could align with our food service and business models.

If you read my article in Supply Professional (December 2021), you will recall how Hospitality Services was “resetting the table” in 2019 through a new way to reduce, reuse and recycle. By March 2020, not only was our population hit by the pandemic, but all sustainability initiatives were wiped out as well.

That was devastating, as all businesses had to pivot to bend to the serving needs (read disposable) of the time. Thankfully, in 2022 we have reverted to our sustainable options on campus for meal service. Our customers appreciate it, and students are engaged in our “#iamreusable” programs.
Whatever the goal, if it’s important enough, you’ll make it happen. People want to change but are not always sure how to start.

For us, it started by looking in the most obvious of places, the garbage bins, and asking questions.
Look at the waste in your garbage, compost, and recycling bins.

Ask, “What could we remove that would help the planet? Would our customers notice if we changed the packaging for our takeout food? Can our chefs maintain food integrity with something that is more sustainable?” And finally, “Can we actually make a change?”

We’ve asked questions and made significant changes, but we continually review and ask new questions whenever there is a change to the supply chain, our menus, a manufacturing process or just to see if there is more we can do.

Mark Kenny, CSCMP, is the procurement manager with Hospitality Services at The University of Guelph.