Table Scraps

Table Scraps: How Phoenix Is Fighting Food-Packaging Waste

Tales from the inaugural Sustainable Packaging Expo.
Tales from the inaugural Sustainable Packaging Expo. Lauren Cusimano
Welcome to Table Scraps, an intermittent series on the growing problem of food waste and what some eateries, officials, farms, institutes, and everyday people are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce kitchen waste and food loss, as more than 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. We’ll explore backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers and settle in.

The setting seemed perfect for Phoenix’s inaugural Sustainable Packaging Expose on April 1.

The Arizona Heritage Center was bustling under blue skies, surrounded by the distinct formations of the neighboring Papago Park. There was even the Green Line Overlook you could sneak off to from the event, which yielded particularly pretty views of a desert riverbed dotted with wildflowers.

The whole scene kind of reminded you why this event was happening in the first place.

We know the problems with food waste and its wild environmental impact (you know, methane emissions), but the stuff it comes in is also a killer.

To-go containers, plates, utensils, and, as we’re all well aware now, plastic straws — many items in the food-packaging world are ending up in landfills, too.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has an entire report about packaging waste. This one’s called “Reducing Wasted Food & Packaging: A Guide for Food Services and Restaurants” and it’s available in a handy PDF.

“Together, food and packaging/containers account for almost 45 percent of the materials landfilled in the United States, and some of these discarded materials are food-related packaging and containers,” it begins. And to drill down further, more than 23 percent of the material reaching landfills in the U.S. are containers and packaging. Yeah, nearly a quarter.

While restaurants are now starting to withhold straws from its diners and use more eco-friendly packaging, why are we still seeing so much Styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery, and waxy plates in our dining and carryout experiences?

Instead of the blasé "What can you do?" response, a small group in Phoenix is actually doing something, which is why they were gathered that afternoon at the Arizona Heritage Center.

click to enlarge The Sustainable Packaging Expo was held at the appropriate Arizona Heritage Center. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The Sustainable Packaging Expo was held at the appropriate Arizona Heritage Center.
Lauren Cusimano

How Phoenix Is Helping

Meet Helene Tack, program development director for Local First Arizona.

“We field a lot of questions about sustainable packaging,” Tack said. “We’re always hearing how confusing it can be.” She said the subject has gotten a lot more attention since plastic straws became a better-known problem, but there’s still the issue of restaurant owners being busy people. Very busy people.

It’s one of the reasons why Tack, along with Captain’s Restaurant Supply, organized the first-ever Sustainable Packaging Expo with the objective of encouraging businesses to use sustainable packaging.

“Busy restaurant owners can spend an hour here working with local distributors,” Tack said. “This is their chance to touch the items and meet the vendors.”

click to enlarge LAUREN CUSIMANO
Lauren Cusimano
And the choice of event space was not a happy accident. “Obviously we want to use a local venue,” Tacks said.

The event was a gathering of eco-friendly packaging manufacturers who were ready to talk. They talked about compostable and recyclable materials used commonly in the food service industry, as well as the materials’ end of life. They talked about packaging, cutlery, and dinnerware made with everything from plastic bottles to cane sugar, cornstarch, wheat, and dead leaves.

Vendors included LPB Manufacturing, good natured Products, Better Earth — just over a dozen total. One vendor (Stalk Market) had out a line of tableware called Wasara that looked like fine china but was made primarily of bamboo and bagasse. Another table (Puracycle) was handing out reusable Use By stickers. Everyone was handing out samples and little nuggets of information.

And those little nuggets were, though pleasantly delivered, pretty dismal.

The EPA defines containers and packaging as “products that are assumed to be discarded the same year the products they contain are purchased." That would be the product used to wrap or protect food and beverages, but can also be used for shipping, storage, and marketing.

It's a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW) and, according again to the EPA, amounted to 77.9 million tons of generation in 2015.

click to enlarge Will there be an expo in 2020? - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Will there be an expo in 2020?
Lauren Cusimano

Taking Responsibility

Remember that episode of Murphy Brown "Whose Garbage Is It Anyway?” She refused to eat her takeout because it came in a Styrofoam container? She almost broke, but Eldin pulled her back from the depths.

Twenty years later, we have to be our own Eldins.

And it's not just cranky journalists like me and Murphy saying there’s a big packaging waste problem.

Since Netflix just released Our Planet, we’ll hit you with one more stat. All this packaging makes up a majority of the litter on beaches and in our waterways. This is a problem because fish, birds, and other wildlife get tangled in the mess, or more often eat it. These animals are often harmed by ingesting plastic bags and other packaging debris.

David Charns of Captain’s (Food Service & Industrial Packaging Sales & Consulting, it said on his card) helped organize the Phoenix event as well, referring to it as “very anti-corporate.” He said the reason his company wants to participate in something like this is because of the responsibility it takes on.

“If it's going to a landfill, it really should be compostable,” he said. “It’s just better to do the right thing."

Charns said the sustainability industry is really in its infancy (something many a vendor echoed at this gig), but it is maturing. Of eco-friendly packaging, he said, “The price is coming down, and more items are coming out.”

click to enlarge Two local bakers looking for options. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Two local bakers looking for options.
Lauren Cusimano

Other Side of the Booth

On the attendee side, any food service venue was able to attend — meaning fine dining restaurants to buffets to small business owners making pastries in their kitchens and taking it to farmers markets. Restaurant, bar, café, and cafeteria operators were invited, as well as food-event organizers. In total, the first Sustainable Food Expo drew 93 attendees.

“Most of the attendees were excited to see a variety of products all in one place and were happy to get samples to try out,” Tack said.

Small business owners making pastries in their kitchens and taking it to farmers markets needing decent food packaging sounds very specific, right? Those people exist, and they were in attendance.

Genesis Israel runs Basima Sweet Treats, a vegan-focused baked goods vendor that sells at Clark Park Farmers Market in Tempe. Next to Israel, Becca Thill operates Bee’s Sweets, offering gluten-free cupcakes and other treats. The two bakers, part of the Arizona State University Prepped program, were wandering the booths at the expo, arms filled with free samples and pamphlets.

Both were looking for more sustainable packaging because of the Arizona Department of Health Services laws for home baked and confectionery goods.

“In 2011, the Arizona State Legislature changed the law, A.R.S. 36-136 (H)(4)(g) and A.R.S. 36-136 (H)(13), to allow residents to produce non-potentially hazardous baked and confectionery products in their homes and to offer them for commercial sale within the state,” reads the ADHS website.

This is known colloquially as "cottage" law, and is adhered to by home-based food businesses.

So sure, make and bake nonhazardous foods in your kitchen. But you’re going to want to wrap up that pastry before you can take it anywhere to sell.

“We use so much packaging,” Thill said. “It’s terrible, but we need to use it so we wanted to look for more options. I love that there’s local retail for it.”

Israel specifically needs clear packaging, since “our customers shop with their eyes” for her cupcakes, cakes, and cookies. “She does beautiful cakes,” Thill said, jumping on.

I believe I saw just what she’s looking for at the good natured Products table.

click to enlarge Will there be an expo in 2020? - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Will there be an expo in 2020?
Lauren Cusimano

Sustainable Packaging Expo 2020?

Tack said though this was the inaugural expo, she and Local First Arizona had been talking about doing this with Captain’s for years. She said most of the attendees were excited to see a variety of products all in one place and were happy to get samples to try out.

So there’s a good chance this will become an annual thing.

“We do want to do this again for sure,” Tack said. “Not sure when, but most likely will be in a year.”

For more information on Local First Arizona events, see the LFA website.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano