Customers, policy makers, and foodservice providers alike are concerned about reducing their environmental impact and mitigating climate change. While this has affected menus (e.g., plant-based diets, farm-to-table dining), another key impact of this concern is packaging and utensils. While straws and single-use plastics were the subject of regulatory agendas and customer ire in the past few years, the landscape has evolved rapidly. Some consumers, cities, and operators have moved beyond eliminating single-use plastics and have pivoted to mandating reusable packaging.


France and Germany were early adopters of this new approach. France requires all restaurants that seat twenty or more customers to serve dine-in offerings with reusable dishes and cutlery. Takeaway customers can still use throwaway, non-plastic containers. In Germany, customers now have the right to request takeaway food in reusable containers.

Now, New York City is considering a similar law. If passed, the law would require all restaurants with dishwashing capacity to serve dine-in customers with reusable dishes and cutlery. In addition, fast casual operators with ten or more locations nationwide must offer reusable packaging.


While reusable packaging and reverse logistics for foodservice sounds daunting, it’s important to remember that this isn’t new. For example, sodas were historically served in glass bottles, which were then returned and refilled. (Incidentally, Coca-Cola appears to be returning to this model after several successful pilots across the globe.) While it will require planning, it’s not impossible for operators (large or small) to incorporate reusable dishes, cutlery, and packaging into their operation.


If your foodservice business is impacted by a reusable packaging mandate or you just want to incorporate sustainability into your work, here are a few things to keep in mind:


  1. Partnerships are Key

Let’s face it. Your core competency is making food. If you wanted to run a reverse logistics company, you would have gone into that field. So why not partner with a company that focuses specifically on that? For example, DoorDash partnered with Deliver Zero to provide reusable packaging to the restaurants in their accelerator program. Meanwhile, Loop provides reusable packaging logistics services to companies as varied as Burger King, Walmart, and small boutiques. Whether you work with one of these companies or develop a consortium of operators in your neighborhood, partnerships will help you achieve the scale necessary to make reusable packaging economically viable and the ease of use necessary to ensure customers return the items.


  1. Use Incentives

Incentives are the bedrock of a well-functioning returnables program. For example, the farmer’s market near my house charges two-dollar deposits for the vendors’ milk jugs and jam jars. (I like to save the jam jars until I have enough deposits to exchange for a “free” jam.) McDonald’s and Burger King have adopted a similar approach in Germany. You might describe this as the “stick” incentive—if customers fail to return the packaging, they lose their deposit.


As you plan your system, remember that “carrot” incentives are also an option. For example, you could offer a small discount (a dollar or less) if customers bring their own containers. If you have a loyalty program, you could integrate reverse logistics into it, so they get bonus points or a free topping when they return containers.


The Bottom Line

By choice or by law, returnable packaging will become more common. The key is to make the transition as seamless as possible for you and your customers. Partnerships make it easier to operate at scale; incentives make it easier for customers to return the packaging quickly. Leveraging these two concepts will give you an edge as you transform your approach to packaging.


Tim Powell is a Managing Principal of Foodservice IP. Tim serves as a trusted foodservice adviser to management at several food companies.

To learn more about FSIP’s Management Consulting Practice, click here.

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