Last month, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D.-Calif.) reintroduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, or BFFPPA, federal legislation that seeks to address the growing problem of single-use plastic waste. Restaurant to-go and disposable packaging is a significant contributor to plastic pollution. Sandra Noonan (below photo courtesy of Just Salad), chief sustainability officer for the New York City-based chain Just Salad, urges restaurant operators to support the bill and be part of the solution.
It’s Earth Month, and Just Salad has asked fellow restaurants and food industry leaders to join us in supporting the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, or BFFPPA, by signing onto this letter.
The BFFPPA is a wide-ranging piece of federal legislation that addresses the plastic pollution crisis. We think it’s important that lawmakers understand the perspective of the food and restaurant industry on this bill. Here are five reasons why Just Salad supports it.
BFFPPA requires packaging producers to take responsibility for the recycling of their products.
Today, Just Salad spends a lot of time investigating whether packaging products that are marketed as recyclable or compostable will actually be recycled or composted.
Too often, the answer is no. Plastic forks? Not recyclable, due to their small size. Bio-plastic packaging? Many composters view it as a contaminant and send it to landfill. Plastic-lined paper cartons? Depends on the city you’re in. Plastic in general? Less than 8.7% of it is recycled in the U.S.
So there’s a huge disconnect between what is technically recyclable and what is actually recycled. One way the BFFPPA tackles this problem is by making packaging manufacturers — rather than municipalities and taxpayers — responsible for the recycling of their products.
This is called Extended Producer Responsibility, and it already exists for other kinds of products. For example, mattresses must be collected and disposed of properly by their manufacturers in states like California, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Similar requirements also exist for products like carpets, paint, pharmaceuticals, pesticide containers and mercury thermostats.
You might ask: Is plastic pollution as problematic as mishandled paint or mercury thermostats?
Consider these facts: Plastic contaminates every ecosystem on the planet. The U.S. is one of the world’s leading contributors to marine plastic pollution, which kills wildlife and makes its way into our food. Microplastics have been found in human placentas. And globally, less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.
BFFPPA advocates contend that Extended Producer Responsibility would save local and municipal governments billions of dollars. One study has quantified these savings at $90-$121 per household per year.
BFFPPA would reduce needless plastic waste — in restaurants and beyond.
The typical restaurant delivery order symbolizes our throwaway culture. Restaurants’ practice of tossing plastic utensils into delivery orders — when people have metal utensils at home — is absurd.
Recognizing this, Just Salad’s ordering website, orderjustsalad.com, asks customers to confirm they really need disposable utensils. We’ve asked third-party delivery platforms to do the same. And indeed, this shift is happening: Grubhub, for example, has announced it will start requiring customers to opt in for plastic utensils, following in the footsteps of Uber Eats.
Under the BFFPPA, plastic straws and disposable utensils would be available upon request only. This means restaurants would stop tossing these items into orders regardless of whether the customer needed them — saving them a few cents an order, which adds up.
In addition, plastic cutlery would be phased out, and restaurants could provide compostable or recyclable alternatives — upon request only — and if recycling or composting facilities for such items were available locally. (We recognize that compostable utensils can cost more than plastic, but the upon-request-only stipulation should serve as an offset.)
Overall, these requirements should reduce the 319 million pounds of straws and cutlery that are tossed in the U.S. annually. It would also force more collaboration among restaurants, utensil suppliers, recycling and composting operators to ensure utensils actually get composted or recycled.
BFFPPA reduces single-use waste beyond plastic.
Under this legislation, there would be a nationwide 10-cent fee on carryout bags of any material, accelerating a much-needed cultural shift away from disposables. (Low-income individuals qualifying for SNAP benefits would be exempt from this fee.)
This is a small burden for society to bear. If we can remember our keys, wallet, and phone every day, we can remember to take a reusable bag too. If we can be persuaded to sort our trash into different bins for recycling, then we can be persuaded to carry reusable bags.
BFFPPA supports refill and reuse programs.
The legislation establishes a grant program for pilot projects testing reusable container systems for cleaning, food and beverage products, and for expanding consumer knowledge of these programs. Just Salad is a staunch supporter of reusables, operating the nation’s largest restaurant reusable bowl program.
Other big brands are building reusable programs as well. Starbucks has launched a Borrow a Cup pilot in Seattle, acknowledging the need for wide-scale reuse systems. Loop has been offering consumer goods, including ice cream and cleaning supplies, in reusable containers since 2019. Several startups are integrating reusables into the quick-service and cafe experience, including DeliverZero, Dispatch Goods, and CupZero.
BFFPPA prevents plastic waste from being shipped to developing countries that cannot manage it.
The bill prevents the export of plastic waste and scrap to developing countries, many of whom have been a major source of ocean plastic pollution due to their inability to manage the waste. According to United Nations data, the U.S. is the world’s third-largest exporter of plastic waste and plastic scrap, shipping 317,000 tons in 2019.
Our point of view here is simple: We do not want to see packaging waste — from us or anyone else — ending up on the shores of any nation.
Summing it up
Plastic waste is out of control. It has been found everywhere from the ocean floor to human placentas. Recycling and composting rates for common disposable items — including food containers and utensils — are abysmally low. And reusable container and refill systems must have a place in our convenience culture.
Just Salad is a thriving restaurant company that wants to create a less wasteful way of eating on the go. We’ve already implemented aspects of this bill into our operations successfully. We believe that our industry can and must do its part to reduce unnecessary waste. Claiming that’s impossible is a failure of the imagination.
Without a supportive national policy, efforts by conscientious brands will never reach their full potential. Too many restaurants lack the will or the resources to change the wasteful habits of our industry — staff must be trained, customers must be notified, cost-benefit analyses must be undertaken.
We cannot wait for a movement of conscientious consumers to pressure businesses to address the waste crisis. We must act now.
Sandra Noonan is the chief sustainability officer at Just Salad.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of editors or management at Nation’s Restaurant News