Blog | April 2024

Our Planet vs. Plastic

Plastic pollution presents a serious problem for the environment. Governments and companies like ISS must work to create a better world for everyone.

Mike Thibault, Director of Sustainability, Guckenheimer 

Plastic has added countless benefits to our daily lives over the past half century, playing a crucial role in many industries across the globe, and foodservice is no exception. The fossil fuel-based polymer’s versatility has made it the ideal material for food packaging, keeping foods safe from pathogens and contaminants, increasing convenience, and prolonging shelf life. More durable and affordable than glass, metal, and paper, its popularity skyrocketed in the 1970s.  

While in theory plastic can be recycled in many places, the reality is that about 91% of plastic ends up in landfills or the environment. Over time, plastic breaks apart and disintegrates into tiny fragments — microplastics — which contaminate soil and waterways, eventually entering our food system. It’s estimated that approximately 14 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, a number that can be difficult to visualize (but understanding the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can help with that). 

The threat single-use plastics pose to human health is becoming clearer each year, as studies continue to uncover the extent to which plastic has infiltrated our lives. Microplastics have been found in human blood, lungs, kidneys, and even placenta. Studies indicate that BPA, a chemical used in the manufacturing of protective linings of food and beverage containers, is associated with increased risk of breast cancer. There are also growing concerns about its adverse effects on fetuses and newborns. 

Accelerating Change

A critical part of ISS’s science-based carbon reduction strategy involves updating procurement standards, as well as partnering with customers and vendor partners to identify opportunities for collaboration and decarbonization. The global food system faces significant challenges around reducing carbon emissions, and plastic film and packaging is one of the biggest contributors to the problem. The food system isn’t built for rapid change and requires both corporations and governments to make strides that force the acceleration of necessary systemwide shifts. For example, San Mateo County’s Disposable Food Servicewares Ordinance, which requires all disposable servicewares be non-plastic and commercially compostable, regulates the use of certain chemicals, and limits the distribution of small accessories like straws and coffee stirrers. 

Guckenheimer, our food service organization, is meeting this challenge head-on, working with our customers to develop pilot programs and test solutions that minimize the use of plastics without impacting the guest experience. We started by reducing any unnecessary single-use plastics. Although plastic disposable gloves are vital, we saw an opportunity to reduce excessive glove usage without compromising food safety by identifying and correcting certain behaviors that led to unnecessary use. By engaging and retraining our teams, we reduced our plastic glove usage by 29%. 

Plastic film was our next focus area. We observed many instances of culinary operations using film where a reusable option would have been sufficient. By ensuring our teams had the right container lids for various applications, we reduced our plastic wrap purchases by 25%. 

Empowering our teams to look inward, hold each other accountable, and walk this road together has been essential to our success. These efforts also help identify further opportunities to reduce waste by ensuring that the reusable option is as convenient as the disposable one — like creating standardized protocols for reusable tasting spoons, and even customizing drinking vessels for employees.

“Plastic-Free” Pilot Programs

Guckenheimer has piloted several “plastic-free” programs — from a customer-facing experience in Boulder to a full operation in the Netherlands. These programs are not fully free of all plastic, but their use is limited to the largest format available, where it is reusable, or where a viable alternative doesn’t exist. This has helped us develop plastic-reduction strategies for more than 30 locations in 2023. We’ve worked with our client in Boulder to develop and implement detailed guidelines that outline the preferred packaging materials for snacks, beverages, and disposable servicewares. We’ve also addressed low-hanging fruit by implementing reusable servicewares where warewashing capacity and labor can accommodate, as well as buying in bulk wherever possible.

While some products were well-suited to be offered in bulk, others were too fragile, or reduced the quality of the guest experience. Our goal has been to ensure that the more sustainable option is just as convenient as the traditional one, otherwise initiatives tend to lose traction. Our operations teams are a crucial part of these programs, and we rely on their expertise and knowledge of their customers' preferences; we start slow, test small, and then expand and apply the learnings to products with similar attributes.

By 2023, we began to standardize programming across sites, transitioning 96% of single-use plastic bottled beverages to bulk, glass, or aluminum alternatives with minimal impact to the customer experience.  

Solving a Critical Problem

In our industry, there aren’t enough viable and truly recoverable alternatives to plastic that can match its performance or consistency at scale. Many plastics also can’t be processed by commercial composting facilities. Bioplastics (like PLA) are an example of an item that few facilities can handle. Those that can process them typically require one or several certifications to be accepted; even then, some municipalities prohibit these from their compost streams. 

While many large-scale food producers, manufacturers, and distributors are not yet prepared to move away from plastic, our vendor partners have displayed serious eagerness and flexibility over the last three years. For example, we’ve collaborated with local coffee roasters to implement reusable tubs with tamper-evident seals in place of the traditional single-use plastic vacuum pouches. We’ve also been working with our produce vendors to explore using paper instead of standard single-use plastic bags for fresh herbs. 

As we chart the road ahead, we’ll be applying these learnings to additional areas. I look forward to ongoing conversations and problem solving with our teams and vendor partners as we seek new innovations and work to create a more sustainable future for everyone.

About the Author

Mike Thibault

Director of Sustainability, Guckenheimer