These businesses are saving thousands by replacing single-use plastic

These businesses are saving thousands by replacing single-use plastic
Image: Clarisa Diaz / Quartz
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Switching from single-use disposable items, like plastic utensils and paper cups, to reusable items is better for the environment. It also saves businesses money. The Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund is helping food business operators in California reduce waste and minimize disposable packaging by keeping track of the effects on business’ bottom lines. Its program, called ReThink Disposable, has found that replacing disposable cups, containers, and cutlery can save operators thousands of dollars.

What are examples of single-use plastic and other disposable items?

Single-use items include anything you use once and then throw away. This could be plastic forks, food containers, paper plates, straws, and to-go cups. The habit of using disposable items on a regular basis primarily came out of the 1950s when “throwaway living” was advertised as a more convenient alternative than completing household chores like washing dishes.

What is wrong with single-use plastic and disposables?

The problem is that now there is more disposable waste in the world than we know what to do with. There is an estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic alone in the environment, and 79% of all plastic ever made still exists in our waters and landfills. Only 9% has been recycled—the remainder has been incinerated.

Eco-conscious businesses are switching to reusables and changing their packaging. Here are just a few of them, with examples of what they did to reduce their single-use waste, and how it made their business better in the long run.

Oren’s Hummus is saving $1,720 per year and eliminating 530 lbs (240 kg) of disposable waste

Oren’s Hummus saves $1,720 per year by replacing plastic sauce cups with reusable ones.

The San Francisco Bay-area restaurant is just one example of 251 businesses that participate in the ReThink Disposable program. Collectively, the businesses are saving over half a million dollars each year, and eliminating over 200,000 lbs of waste while doing so.

Alameda Theatre & Cineplex is saving $9,880 per year and eliminating 6,910 lbs. of disposable waste

Comforts cafe saves $14,000 per year and eliminates 2.4 tons of disposable waste

Sustainable business practices

Businesses that participated in ReThink Disposable saved even after upfront costs in setting up their reusable systems. “Typically with $300 to $500 we can set up a business to be 100% reuse,” said Grace Lee, program director of ReThink Disposable. “The payback period is within a few months, then [the businesses] are reducing their disposable packaging.”

Disposable flatware and serving items are not better than reusables at preventing the spread of illness and cannot be sanitized the way that reusable items can. ReThink Disposable notes that following the journey of a disposable product from a factory to a consumer is harder than tracking the path of a reusable item from the dishwasher to table. Cleaning, sanitizing, and handling reusable food-service items allows the best control of germs.

Lee emphasizes that reducing single-use items is a necessary part of creating a sustainable business. “There are so many co-benefits. The momentum towards environmental awareness is growing and there’s a huge faction of our society that wants to support businesses that have the same goal of protecting the planet, protecting public health, and also having a healthy economy. It’s the triple bottom line.”