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Food Container Calculus 

How do we eliminate single-use containers in our food system? There's no easy answer.

Food waste in the U.S. is a massive problem, representing an estimated 30-40% of the food supply. The issue is part of larger-scale topics of climate change, pollution and of course, hunger. While the problem is staggering, another piece of waste often goes overlooked: packaging waste. 

Many know that tinge of guilt that comes when a restaurant or food cart asks, "Would you like a spoon with that?" while holding a plastic to-go container full of soup stashed in a plastic bag. Often, we just sigh and accept the spoon. But this convenience is adding up. According to a report by National Geographic, the U.S. uses 100 million plastic utensils every day. During the pandemic, to-go orders spiked by 127%, adding more packaging waste into the equation. Restaurants nationwide account for 78% of all disposable packaging, with all those single-use containers later filling up landfills. 

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"I realized how much waste there is beyond what you see," said Walker Sorlie, owner of Green Range LLC, which works to deliver compostable containers and environmentally friendly cleaning supplies across Central Oregon. Observing the local food system gives Sorlie increased insight into addressing problems of waste and the goals of restaurants. 

"No one has really mentioned an environmental focus—not yet... It hasn't been the biggest reason, but it's definitely part of the reason." While compostable products can represent a shift in the right direction, the word "compostable" itself doesn't represent a solution. 

"Compostability is not the best metric (and certainly not the only metric we should look at) to understand overall sustainability or environmental benefit of a product," as Udara Bickett, program manager at The Environmental Center in Bend, explained by email. "Because these materials labeled compostable, biodegradable, bio-based, plant-based are relatively new, the research around their compatibility in compost systems and their environmental benefits are evolving." Bickett discusses the broad challenges of food packaging problems in a series of blog posts on The Environmental Center's website. 

Right now many composting facilities can't handle the burden of breaking down compostable kitchenware, leading to composting groups asking people not to give them compostable service-ware and studies focusing on different containers' environmental footprints. Sorlie believes that increasing composting facilities' ability to break down products can increase the viability of using compostable products. "The compostable products need to be composted." 

In the meantime, there's yet another option. 

"We strongly encourage a shift to reusable service ware, and at the very least assessing the full product life cycle of single-use products," Bickett explains.

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