Cookie Preferences

Turning the Tide on Single-Use Plastics

Environment |  6.8.2021

Healthy oceans are critical to the wellbeing of both people and the planet. But plastics remain a major threat: If current trends continue, the world’s oceans will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish by 2025, and more plastic than fish (by weight) by 2050, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As stewards of the environment, we must think about both what we take from the ocean and what we put into it.

Several years ago, we announced a holistic strategy to significantly reduce single-use plastics across our global food service operations. We started by addressing the tip of the proverbial plastic iceberg—straws and stirrers. We were on track to continually reduce other single-use plastics, but then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Demand for disposables surged alongside the rise in take-out dining.

Since 2018, we have reduced our use of plastic straws and stirrers by 59%—or nearly 90 million items.

But our commitment to reducing waste hasn’t wavered. Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, our operational improvements successfully reduced our use of plastic straws and stirrers by 59% in the U.S. since 2018.

What’s more, guests can still play a role in our sustainability efforts. “We like to make our consumers aware of what we’re doing, as well as how they can take action to reduce waste, like skipping a straw or participating in our reusable food container program,” says Kelly McCourt, Enterprise Sustainability Manager.

Here’s a look at how we are capturing the moment to change consumer mindsets around disposables—for the sake of our oceans and marine life.

The Problem with Plastics

Taking a stand on single-use plastics was best for the environment, and data showed our consumers welcomed the change. A tidal wave of state and local legislation around single-use plastics has further shaped Americans’ approach. 

Consumer trends are one of several factors influencing the reduction of single-use plastics in our industry.

Reducing and reusing have long been the centerpiece of this strategy. As McCourt puts it, “We can’t recycle our way out of the plastics crisis. We need to reduce first, reuse as much as possible, and then recycle as a last resort.”

Having successfully reduced plastic straws and stirrers, we turned our attention to other plastic categories—the same bags, cups, cutlery, and to-go containers that increased during the pandemic.

Disposables fulfill consumer needs for convenience, portability, and safety. Our challenge is to invite guests to take part in our efforts to reduce single-use plastics while reinforcing that reusables can be just as easy and safe as disposables.

Opting Out, Opting In

In reality, durable dishware and reusable to-go food containers—both washed back-of-house following our standard ware-washing protocols—are just as safe as single-use plastics. Washing between uses and exchanging them with minimal personal contact are critical to this process.

Some of our locations sell the reusable containers, which can increase guests’ commitment and incentivize them to bring them back, while also reducing program costs. Other clients provide the first container for free, making it even easier for guests to participate.

Such programs are popular in higher education, where students appreciate learning the “why” behind these commitments. “It's a great way of teaching a whole cohort about how you can reduce waste in your own life,” McCourt states.

When Arizona State University transitioned to outdoor and takeout dining in 2020, we launched a reusable to-go container program supplemented with compostable disposables. Together these efforts avoided sending thousands of pounds of waste to landfills each day.

To-go containers are not the only reusable item on the scene. For Earth Week 2021, Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, gave away reusable bags with mobile food orders and added the option to skip the plastic bag. The result? They eliminated 2,000 plastic bags from their highest-volume dining location in the first week alone.

Students tend to be early adopters of sustainability initiatives, such as our reusable container programs.

As a company, we’re also enhancing our digital ordering platforms to allow consumers to skip receiving disposable cutlery with their to-go orders. Boston University gave its students the option to do so, and about 45% of patrons opted out of disposable cutlery for the 2020-21 school year. This simple step has prevented thousands of packages of plastic cutlery from being sent out into the world.

Little by little, these changes chip away at disposability culture on campus. “It'll take a great deal of engagement and education to make reusability the norm,” McCourt admits. “But we are definitely trending in that direction.”

Leaving No Trace in our National Parks

The goals may be the same, but reducing waste looks a little different in the great outdoors than it does at a college or university. More Americans have headed to our National Parks during the pandemic—and they’re leaving waste behind.

“Our toughest challenge is helping people understand that their actions have direct impact on the environment,” states Allison Gosselin, Director, Sustainability and Engineering for Aramark Leisure.

Remote venues like these present their own unique challenges. Case in point: The waste facility nearest to Yosemite National Park was designed to support the year-round resident population, not the millions of annual visitors. Meanwhile, waste from Alaska’s Denali National Park must be barged more than 2,000 miles over water to Seattle.

“Waste doesn’t stay where you think it does,” Gosselin explains. “All that waste must be properly collected, processed, and sent to the right place, which could be many, many miles away.”

As part of the Zero Landfill Initiative to reduce park waste and divert it from landfills, we are minimizing single-use plastics throughout our operations. For example, we source highly recyclable aluminum beverage containers whenever possible. We pair these efforts with waste-management best practices, such as labeling trash and recycling cans with universal signage to overcome consumer confusion about “what goes where.” Our waste haulers also weigh all our waste to provide the data we need for continuous improvement.

"We can’t continue to throw things away because there is no such thing as ‘away.’"
- Allison Gosselin, Director, Sustainability and Engineering, Aramark

All told, we’re working to keep our parks clean and prevent waste from trickling downstream—literally—to the oceans. Still, it’s best if waste doesn’t get generated in the first place. “We can’t continue to throw things away because there is no such thing as ‘away,’” Gosselin attests. 

Rethinking Plastic Gloves

The pandemic highlighted yet another single-use product: disposable gloves, of which our business uses more than 500 million globally each year. Gloves can provide an essential layer of protection to keep food safe, such as when we handle ready-to-eat items—but they are not a substitute for proper handwashing. Gloves can even promote a false sense of food safety security and lead to less safe handwashing.

“Culturally, our employees are used to wearing gloves for many food service-related activities. They tend to be worn out of habit and overused,” points out Lara Malatesta, Vice President, Food Safety and Management Systems. “Gloves may keep your hands clean, but they can still spread contaminants if you don’t wash your hands properly and change your gloves when appropriate.”

Demand for disposable gloves only increased with COVID-19, and Malatesta believes we have a responsibility to offset all that plastic. “Perhaps there is no better time than a pandemic to reinforce the importance of handwashing as the most effective way to ensure safe food handling,” she says.

The proposed solution: A global education campaign focused on proper handwashing and glove use—“reinforcing the right behaviors at the right time,” as Malatesta says. Other serving methods, such as tongs and bakery paper, can be used in tandem to help avoid bare hand contact with food while reducing glove waste.

As with plastic straws, our hand hygiene and glove reduction initiative will follow a trajectory informed by legal and safety requirements, consumer insights, client needs, and cultural norms. Internationally, similar efforts have already proven successful at enhancing food safety and reducing waste from single-use plastics—a win-win for public health and the environment.

Thanks to our innovative partnership with TerraCycle, we’re able to recycle unconventional waste streams such as disposable gloves and candy and snack wrappers.

Protecting Our Global Commons

We’re on a journey to change disposability culture and protect our oceans and other natural ecosystems. Our efforts to reduce single-use plastics have the highest success rate when everyone, from our central operations to our associates to our consumers, joins in.

Says McCourt, “Even if you don't live near a coast, your actions can still impact the oceans. The oceans are a global commons, and it’s everyone’s duty to protect them.”