Show Me the Numbers: How Much Will it Cost Food Truck Operators to Switch to Greener Packaging?
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
How useful are studies that determine which choices are the healthiest and most eco-friendly if these options stand little chance of wide-scale implementation? When tackling some of the most intractable sources of waste such as what’s created from outdoor events serviced by mobile food vendors, it’s important to be pragmatic and realistic. Demanding only the healthiest and most eco-friendly packaging and disposal options to comply with your organization’s sustainability goals when vendors are accustomed to sourcing the cheapest and easiest options is bound to result in push-back and non-compliance. How can you make the transition to event waste diversion as smooth as possible, while also achieving your organization’s sustainability goals on a reasonable time frame?
Let's compare the pricing of status quo options for food trucks and vendors with compostable options.
The Styrofoam Clamshell
I’m going to focus on the ubiquitous Styrofoam clamshell, since it’s a disposable that so many food trucks use. Pricing is sourced an e-commerce site very popular with the food service industry. Keep in mind that buying at higher volumes results in lower prices, of course, and that some vendors will purchase directly from manufacturers or from a different e-commerce site.
10,000 Styrofoam clamshells can be purchased for $1,877.00 (this does not include shipping, which I am also not including for other packaging items).
New York banned these, other Styrofoam food contact packaging, and packing peanuts statewide as of January 1, 2022. Go NY!!
The Molded Fiber Clamshell, PFAS Added
These clamshells are identical to the Styrofoam clamshells except they’re manufactured from bagasse, which is the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane. If you were to look at this product’s listing on the company's website,
you’ll notice an “Attention California Residents: Prop. 65 Warning” at the bottom of the screen. Whenever you see that on a compostable product listing, that often means the product has a PFAS coating (we’ll talk more about that later). 10,000 of these clamshells can be purchased for $2,246.00. These are the least expensive option for a compostable clamshell.
The Molded Fiber Clamshell, No Added PFAS
These clamshells do not have added PFAS. 10,000 of these clamshells can be purchased for $3,300. This is the least expensive out of the no added PFAS options. There are other
options for clamshells with no added PFAS, but they are pricier (more on that later).
Conventional Plastic Cutlery
10,000 conventional white plastic cutlery sets wrapped in plastic and consisting of a heavyweight fork, knife, and spoon with a napkin can be purchased for $639.80. This is the least expensive option for a set with all these items.
10,000 compostable CPLA cutlery sets wrapped in a compostable bag and consisting of a heavyweight fork, knife, and spoon with a napkin can be purchased for $1,559.60
10,000 single unwrapped conventional heavyweight forks are $184.90, while 10,000 single unwrapped compostable CPLA forks are $460.06.
I’m not going to get into cups too much here, because there’s a lot more variation based on what the vendor is selling (smoothie cups, beer glasses, coffee cups, etc.). However, a recent development that might factor into decisions about cups is that 70% of Michigan now has access to paper takeout cup recycling. This type of disposable cup was not widely recyclable in Michigan until recently.
The Bottom Line
The molded fiber clamshell with PFAS is about 20% more expensive than the Styrofoam clamshell, while the no PFAS option is 75% more expensive than the Styrofoam clamshell.
The cutlery is where the cost increase really gets steep. The compostable cutlery set is 144% more expensive than the conventional cutlery set, while the compostable single fork is 149% more expensive than the conventional single fork.
Conventional disposables are landfilled - vendors are used to trash service being provided by the venue at no charge. It's included with the venue rental fee and often is not listed as a separate line item, further creating the impression that it's 'free'. Many venues have no recycling infrastructure at all, let alone composting infrastructure. If a vendor or host organization wants to have recycling and composting on site, they're going to have hire a hauler or service provider. Which is not as cheap as the landfill tipping fees in Michigan!
Using compostable disposables but then landfilling them doesn't make much sense. The costs of disposal have to be factored into the total overall costs of landfill diversion.
THE PFAS ISSUE
I really wish I could realistically say all vendors could switch to PFAS-free compostable disposables. However, at this point, they're just too expensive. That won't be the case forever. Once the huge multinational food companies get on board with non-PFAS grease resistant coatings, the demand for such coatings will increase, and costs will come down. But right now, demand is small so production is not at scale, meaning prices are often too high. There's a process for weaving the paper fibers in such a way that a grease-resistant coating is not needed, but again, it's prohibitively expensive.
Vendors that can afford to do so should make the switch. Keep in mind, however, that PFAS coatings are usually only an issue with molded fiber (sugarcane, wheat, plant fiber, etc.) compostables, not with compostable plastics like CPLA cutlery and cups.
Making the Transition Less Painful for Vendors
Consider a Central Cutlery Station Let’s start with cutlery, since this is where the cost increase is greatest. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people became much more interested in wrapped cutlery, so this option may be preferable for both attendees and vendors. However, other no-touch options are available. Consider a centralized location for utensil dispensers filled with compostable cutlery. Your organization could purchase the dispensers and charge a fee to each vendor in their
contract for the utensils. The panels on the side of the dispenser pictured are removable, reusable appliques and could even be used as advertisement for event sponsorships to reduce costs to vendors for compostable utensils. Event attendees are used to the concept of a centralized location for utensils and condiments, as this is the way things are done at many venues such as Comerica Park and Huntington Place. In the future, this could also be an option to move away from condiment packets and souffle cups and switch to condiment dispensers. Condiment packets and souffle cups are a perennial contamination issue in recycle and compost bins.
Divide costs into a price increase per plate Vendors can determine what their cost increase would be per plate or per customer served to determine how much prices would have to increase to cover their costs.
Develop a vendor incentive program Consider an incentive program for compliant vendors such as a discount on vendor fees. You might also consider implementing a ‘Green Vendor’ certification seal or something along those lines. When event attendees are aware of the landfill diversion practices of the vendor, they may be more understanding of cost increases.
Get donations of product from manufacturers Many compostable product manufacturers donate products for events, but they often require the recipient to be a non-profit. If your organization is a nonprofit, you may be able to secure products and then distribute them to your vendors. This is an excellent option for rolling out a pilot program at lower cost.
Pursue waste management sponsorships Bins, tents, websites, social media, event tables, flyers, etc. can create advertising opportunities for sponsors. "This Zero Waste Station Sponsored by ____________. " It takes planning, but sponsorships can lower the costs of compostable disposables and waste diversion in general. Funds can be used to purchase vendor disposables for that particular sponsored event.
Split the cost of waste diversion among all the vendors Event hosts concerned about costs can divide the costs of landfill diversion services over the number of vendors participating in event and make it part of the event participation fee.
Have meaningful stakeholder meetings When holding stakeholder meetings with your vendors regarding sustainable event practices, consider hosting such meetings BEFORE policies are set in stone. Far too many times, farcical ‘stakeholder/community input’ meetings are held where the decision makers simply inform the attendees of what’s already been done that can’t be changed, and they want to hear the feedback on what they’ve already implemented without stakeholder input, or with input limited to only certain stakeholders. By no means does that mean your vendors are driving all your decisions. Some things they’re just not going to like, and you don’t need to create a debate over points that are not open for discussion. After all, for far too long it’s been far too easy to throw away far too much with no penalty and very little cost. No one enjoys the prospect of paying more money. However, we don’t want to make the transition to sustainable waste management more painful than it has to be.
Be honest about the challenges of new costs and new procedures. There are third parties that certify businesses and events as zero waste, low waste, etc. And in promoting the value of these certifications, you’ll often see suggestions to quantify the savings on disposal fees from alternative disposal methods such as recycling, composting, and reuse. Living in Michigan, I get a good chuckle out of those statements, and I wonder where the it people who write those suggestions live. Somewhere in California? Oregon? Maybe in the Northeast? Certainly nowhere in Michigan, where we have the cheapest landfill tipping fees in the country, one of the lowest recycling rates in the nation, and solid waste laws that make room for nothing but landfilling. Simply put, right now it’s ALWAYS going to be cheaper to throw it all away. Period. It is not free for a business to recycle. It is not free for a business to compost. And both these services cost more than landfilling.
Some people are struggling. And some....are not. Depending upon what community you’re in and what vendors you’re dealing with, realize that some vendors really will struggle with funding the purchase of more sustainable disposable products. And some vendors are making money hand over fist and simply don’t want to pay a penny more than what they’re used to paying for cheap throwaway disposables. Just something to think about when dealing with pushback.
When considering your organization’s sustainability goals, remember that whether you’re a for profit business, a nonprofit, or a municipality, the concept of sustainability encompasses much more than recycling and waste management. ‘Environmental’ is one third of ‘ESG’; ‘planet’ is one third of the triple bottom line imperative of ‘people, planet, profit’. Some vendors are from communities that have had long-standing issues with access to capital and opportunity. Some events are held in communities subject to environmental injustices and varying access to recycling and waste management infrastructure at home. Be sensitive to these considerations when making demands of your vendors.
We have very little commercial composting infrastructure in Michigan. And most of the commercial composters that do exist do not accept compostable disposables. There is no infrastructure for reusables that is accessible to food trucks, and even if there was, I don’t see it being anywhere close to cost competitive with compostable disposables, let alone conventional disposables. (Example: I recently gave one of my wedding clients an estimate for both reusables and compostable disposables. The cost of the compostable disposables was just under $300. The cost of the reusables? $860.) Reusables include not only drop off and pick up but the labor and cost involved in cleaning them. Reusables make more sense for a permanent restaurant, but the logistics would be super complicated for a food truck on the move. (By the way, even with all the challenges, I'd love to pilot reusables with a willing food truck and/or small event - I've got a program waiting for a 'guinea pig' - reach out if you or someone you know wants to do it!)
So, if the most eco-friendly choice (reusables) doesn’t work, does that mean food trucks shouldn’t exist, or aren’t the right choice for your event? Should a teen selling popsicles out of rolling freezer cart he bought with his own money not be allowed to participate at an eco-friendly event because the popsicle wrappers are not recyclable? Of course not. Because there are values that are just as important as landfill diversion, and some types of waste are just headed for the landfill. Don't let perfection be the enemy of progress!
And finally, lead the way and work with other cities, your local chamber, or your local sustainable business forum to get other venues and municipalities on board with their own waste diversion policies. In the future, it’ll be easier to get vendors to comply when you’re not the outlier. And even EASIER once we have legislative support for recycling and composting in Michigan, not just landfilling!