Food services company commits to reducing single-use plastics in North America

compostable food containerAnother grand plan for reducing and/or eliminating single-use plastics just fell into my inbox. This time it’s from a food services and facilities management company, Sodexo (Issy-les-Moulineaux, France), which says it is “committed to improving quality of life” through its newly announced North American Single-Use Plastics Reduction Plan. The company promises that the plan will eliminate single-use plastic bags and stirrers by 2019, polystyrene foam items such as cups, lids and food containers by 2025, and shift straws to a “by request” item that will still be available to customers who need them while moving forward toward more sustainable materials.

“As a company serving consumers in universities, workplaces, hospitals, schools, stadiums, and so many other venues, we understand both the potential impact we can make through a commitment to reduction and the real benefit that some of these products bring to people every day,” said Ted Monk, Vice President for Corporate Responsibility at Sodexo. “We believe there’s tremendous room for reducing waste without having a single person who uses our services feel like they are being excluded.”

Jill Houghton, President and CEO of Disability:IN, commented: “We support efforts to prevent waste. However, it’s important to remember that for many people, these aren’t convenience products—they are necessities. We’re happy to provide Sodexo with guidance that ensures their facilities are fully inclusive of people with disabilities and are fully accessible to everyone.”

While Sodexo said that its policy will eliminate over 245 million pieces of unnecessary single-use items, the company does not say what alternative materials it will use to replace them. Obviously paper will be one of the first choices, but as I’ve noted in a number of past blog posts, paper is not the most energy- and resource-efficient material with which to make straws and containers. In many cases, paper items are coated and are neither recyclable nor compostable.

For example, I recently stayed at a Hampton Inn, which serves breakfast each morning. The paper plates that are used have a bold announcment on the front of the plate (which is coated with something—probably a polymer, as I doubt it’s a wax) that the plate is recyclable and/or compostable with the caveat that only if there is a local facility that accepts these types of plates. Obviously, there must have been no facility nearby that would accept these plates as everyone, including myself, threw their plates into the trash.

So, I have to ask why Hilton goes to the trouble of buying coated paper plates that have a note that they are recyclable and/or compostable without providing a receptacle to collect these plates? Perhaps these plates give Hilton/Hampton Inn the warm, “green” fuzzies, fooling people into believing that Hilton is contributing to the salvation of the planet.

Sodexo said it is committed to four goals:

  • Eliminate single use plastic take-out bags and plastic stirrers by the end of 2018, with overall reductions of these single-use items;
  • reduce straw use by adopting a “by request” policy and shift plastic straws to more sustainable materials, unless plastic is required for accessibility, by 2019;
  • eliminate polystyrene foam service ware by 2025, starting with immediate reductions; and
  • continue to seek innovative practices and products to reduce or eliminate other single-use plastics.

Plastic stirrers can be replaced with wooden ones, but I don’t see how those would be more eco-friendly than plastic given that trees are involved. Trees take in CO2 and produce oxygen, but when they are cut down they too release CO2 that is stored. Unless the harvesting company has a CO2 capture system to keep it from being released into the atmosphere, I can’t see how using wood for stirrers (and spoons/sporks, etc.) is greener. Additionally, I remember eating ice cream from paper cups that came with little wooden spoons, and it was awful! You could taste the wood. But since some ice cream contains cellulose it might not matter much nowadays.

We’ve gone down the paper straw path before. They’re not compostable because of the chlorine to bleach them white (which also gives them a funny taste). Composting facilities have their standards, you know.

Pressed paperboard containers, like the one I took my leftovers home in from a local restaurant that begs customers to “compost me,” isn’t a good option. We run into the problem of a lack of local large-scale commercial composting facilities that will take these thick-walled, molded paperboard containers. I saved mine so that I could take some photos to accompany a blog I might write on this topic one day (uhm, see above).

As has been proven over and over again, plastics are the better alternative. Just because paper dissolves or breaks down in the ocean doesn’t mean the fish don’t eat it. When looking at the use of resources and energy in the manufacturing process, plastic is, by far, more efficient than metal or glass.

While Sodexo claims that its plans to “phase out unnecessary single-use plastics” is an important first step in “tackling the plastic waste crisis,” it doesn’t mention a more important first step, which is getting developing nations, primarily in Asia, to install the infrastructure either for recycling or waste-to-energy systems. Next, they need to train people to properly dispose of the valuable plastic waste and not throw it into the environment. But all of that takes work, money and time.

Let’s just ban plastics and let people dump the rest of their trash wherever they want.

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