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Reusables vs. Disposables in Foodservice Operations

To reuse or dispose? That is the proverbial and, in some cases, literal million-dollar question for foodservice operators, from the smallest quick-serve restaurant to the highest volume K-12 or college cafeteria.

The fact of the matter is, when it comes to the decision to reuse and rewash permanent dishware versus (hopefully) biodegradable disposals, there is no finite answer. And that's to be expected: every operation is different, with different volume levels, different peak hours, different back-of-the-house and waste management infrastructure.

"It's difficult to do the calculation one way or another," says Ray Soucie, FCSI, LEED AP BD+C, principal of Portland, Ore.-based RSA Foodservice Consulting.


The School Nutrition Association recently released a study analyzing the two routes and found that among the schools surveyed, washing permanent trays proved to be the better path. It's important to note, however, that the study is not a traditional one based on random selection, says Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the association. However, the study did survey a range of small to larger K-12 schools from different regions of the country, including elementary, middle and high schools.

"Reusable compartment trays had a lower environmental impact and were less expensive when compared to disposable servingware options," the study said. "Reusable compartment trays used the least amount of energy, had the lowest amount of solid waste, the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, and were also the least expensive."

The study also found that newer model dishwashers (e.g., "replacement" dishwashers) use less water and energy and can reduce rinse water usage and energy consumption by nearly half. Using these more efficient dishwashers can save approximately $1,300 per 100,000 meals served, according to the study. This is a significant number for schools, as they provide more than 5 billion meals each year to students.

The findings don't apply for all permanentware, or schools, for that matter. Many K-12 schools still opt for the biodegradable disposable route because many don't have the labor resources or budget to hire dishwashers, let alone purchase top-of-the-line warewashers, the bulk of which is the most energy efficient on the market. So it makes sense for some schools, at least the ones surveyed in this study, to use biodegradable disposables in some form, Soucie says.

"Labor is always a major component in any foodservice program, and can account for as much as 30 percent of cost or more," Soucie says. "If schools have to eliminate labor they may decide to use disposables. You would hope that they then use compostable disposables and have a recycling program set in place."

Fortunately, many schools these days do have recycling programs in place.

Doing the Combo

All schools reported using a blend of disposable and reusable items, typically in the form of compartmented reusable trays for containing and carrying the food, combined with disposable dishware and utensils.

This combination of permanentware and disposable applications doesn't just apply to K-12 schools; colleges/universities, healthcare facilities and other operations with multiple satellite operations tend to go for permanentware in the main dining halls combined with disposables for the coffee shops, convenience stores and other remote outlets and kiosks, according to Soucie.

Add to that, a few schools in Seattle and Northern California are still managing to offer composting bins for those biodegradable disposables at each remote location, including stadium facilities. At the end of the day, golf cart-type vehicles drive around to pick up compost bins and consolidate it with the main dining facility compost.

Trayless dining has also thrown in new options — without the need to pass 500 or 600 trays through a warewasher at a time, some operations have downgraded on their machines, turning to pot-washing.

Calculating the Costs

More dishwashers are energy efficient these days, using only .3 to .5 gallons per rack, says Soucie. At the same time, they're not cheap. "The initial cost startup of using permanentware can add up to a $30,000 investment," Soucie says. That includes the washing machine, dish tables, exhaust hood fan, and the exhaust shaft that needs to be built in the building.

That said, washing permanentware versus reusing disposables may cost more money upfront but overtime could lead to higher cost savings, both in waste management costs and from not having to constantly buy new supplies. Add to that the premium cost on corn-based biodegradable-compostable disposables versus plastic-based disposables.

"It's all based on volume," Soucie says. "You have to have a core volume to offset the costs in either direction. You could have a very small school where it may be more affordable for them to not do permanentware at all in the first couple of years to save on the upfront costs. But over time, those disposable costs may add up."

The Environmental Conundrum

The conundrum when it comes to dishwashers is that while many are more energy- and water-efficient these days, you're still dealing with chemicals, Soucie says. However, there are options for natural cleaning solutions, though they're not as widely accepted quite yet.

Biodegradable-compostable disposables come with their own irony, too. There are operators that will purchase these environmentally-friendly supplies, yet lack a composting bin so consumers are still throwing them in the garbage. Sure, they will biodegrade faster than the plastic-based alternatives, but they're still filling up landfills. Diversion, in this case? Not achieved.

Not all areas of the country have access to off-site composting. Larger, metropolitan cities may have multiple composting facilities available, especially on the West Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, but in between these facilities are still few and far between. So what's worse? Disposing of biodegradable disposables in the garbage? Or investing in energy-efficient dish machines to go the permanentware route instead?

"I would like to think that anyone who invests in compostable disposables also has a composting program, but unfortunately the education hasn't caught up with everyone yet," Soucie says. "But even if you use permanentware, you can still compost. Anyone can scrape off their food in a compost bin before putting the plates through a pass through."

The next level below composting if that isn't an option might be using a pulper and/or dehydrator to at least reduce the volume of garbage an operation puts out.

Leveraging LEED

Washing permanentware versus using biodegradable disposables also has an affect on LEED-certified projects.

"We want to look at it in a holistic view," says Soucie. For projects following the prescriptive path, which involves zeroing in on the kitchen by following a guideline or checklist for recommended energy-efficient kitchen equipment, going the permanentware route tends to add up to more "credits" because the efficient equipment saves on both energy and water.

For those doing energy modeling (whole building energy and water usage analysis), it's a whole different ballgame. Energy and water savings coming from a kitchen can appear to have less of an impact because credits are earned from overall building water and energy savings, not from the purchase of energy-efficient equipment. It may make more sense, therefore, to eliminate warewashers all together and go with the standard three-compartment sink, or use heavier-duty dishwashers for pot washing instead, Soucie says.

"It really is a case-by-case study," he says.

Volume, peak production times, facility setup, composting availability, labor, near-term and long-term budget, waste management costs and other considerations must be taken before the decision to go with permanentware, biodegradable compostables or a combination of both.