Sustainable food service supplies are creeping up all around us.
Next time you order take-out, note the containers storing your food and drinks, the utensils provided for your convenience. Upon closer inspection, those products just might be derived from the same ingredients in your meal — a sugar or starch — or plant fibers from say grass, leaves or bamboo.
The economy, technology and environmental awareness — not to mention the oil gusher in the Gulf — are forcing the entire food supply chain from manufacturers to retailers to keep pace with the latest innovations in sustainable food service supplies.
Indeed, earlier this year the National Restaurant Association reported that 40 percent of full-service restaurants and 31 percent of quick service restaurants planned to devote more resources to green initiatives this year. Without a doubt, many of them will be making a push toward using more sustainable food service supplies.
One of the most important advances in the packaging industry has been bioplastic, also known as green plastic, made from corn-based polylactic acid (PLA).
About 60 percent of biodegradable plastic in the United States is composed of PLA and production is expected to increase more than 20 percent a year, according to SBI, a market research company.
Another popular material being used in manufacturing sustainable food service supplies is bagasse, which is the wood pulp that remains after juice has been extracted from sugar cane. It can be used to make insulated food containers.
Other starches — tapioca, potatoes, wheat — also could be used in food service products, in addition to vegetable oils and wood pulp.
Among the major brands in the sustainable food and beverage arena are Solo and Chinet.
Solo manufactures a line of products called Bare, which the company describes as an "eco-forward" option for consumers. The product offerings from the Bare line include compostable plates and bowls, take-out containers made from bagasse, compostable paper cups made from renewable resources and cups lined with plant-based resin rather than petroleum-based resin.
At Chinet, the company says its molded fiber products, such as Chinet Classic White plates and bowls and Chinet Casual plates, are biodegradable and can be placed into a composting bin rather than a trash can.
A more specialized manufacturer of sustainable food service supplies is the Boulder, Colo.-based company, Eco-Products. The company grew more than 800 percent between 2005 and 2008 and made Inc. magazine’s Inc. 500 list last year.
According to its website, Eco-Products says it uses PLA for many of its products, including cold cups and lids, various food service containers, cutlery, hot cups, soup cups and straws. Eco-Products uses bagasse for many of its plates, bowls and food service containers designed for hot foods.
Looking for more information on sustainable food service supplies? On its website, The Biodegradable Products Institute lists about 30 companies as certified manufacturers of biodegradable and compostable food service products.
This is one industry that certainly appears poised for (renewable) growth.