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Towards Plastic-free F&B industry: How learning & development can enable restaurants join the crusade against plastic

Over the last few decades, plastics have become almost indispensable to our daily lives. But this is not something to be proud of — a life without plastic would be better off for all beings on Earth.

The world is beginning to realize this. You would have heard of ‘plastic activism’ — or essentially the fight against plastic as our go-to manufacturing material. Global corporations like Kellogg’s, Hershey’s, Starbucks, and many more have also joined the fight and are on the quest to go plastic-free.

There are numerous reasons why this is a worthwhile pursuit, the main one being its impact on our seas. Plastic takes a long while to decompose – between 500 to 1000 years! Whenever we discard a plastic item, it finds its way to a waste pile, and eventually, to the ocean. There this plastic decomposes to impact marine life as they end up consuming this plastic. This indigestible chunk of plastic often proves fatal for marine life. Quite often, smaller pieces of plastic find their way back to our food table – either in the form of the seafood we consume or as microplastics in the water supply. 

The food and beverage industry, particularly, contributes a lot to the plastic build-up. Think about it for a minute. Every step in a restaurant’s supply chain uses plastic – from the packaging of the meat or veggies when they first reach the kitchen to the packaging we deliver food in. In fact, it is estimated that almost 40% of plastic waste can be attributed to packaging alone! If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that food packaging would create so much of plastic wastes. 

Tackling the Problem

Helping F&B employees and, by extension, the entire world thus becomes a crucial task for any learning professional working in the restaurant industry. It’s a complex problem, but one worth solving. But like many other complex problems, the first task should be to break it down and solve it in parts. 

L&D professionals need to approach the solution to this problem in three steps:

  1. Make restaurants and their employees more cognizant of the hazards plastics pose;
  2. Understand what alternatives are available to different products that use plastic, across the entire lifecycle;
  3. Creating actionable plans for employees to follow. 

In this post, we’ll have a look at all three aspects. Although do remember that the points listed here are indicative and not exhaustive! So, keep looking out for more ways to provide awareness, more alternatives, and more ways to enforce action. Any possibility that contributes to creating a plastic-free world is worth exploring.

Spreading Awareness

One of the most important aspects of effecting any sort of change is spreading awareness. Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? If your employees don’t realise something is wrong, they wouldn’t even think about changing it.

When it comes to reducing plastic use, the most crucial concept to know about is that of single-use plastics. These are plastic items that are thrown away after a single use. Due to its inexpensive and durable nature, plastic has been the ingredient of choice for manufacturers when it comes to items meant to be disposed of after a single use, such as disposable cups, spoons, forks, condiment packaging, Styrofoam boxes, etc. Can you make out something from that list? To spell out the obvious, millions (maybe even billions) of each of these items are used by the F&B industry worldwide every year! 

A key facet to achieving a plastic-free world is ensuring your employees know about the various ways in which they are consuming plastic, why that is a problem, and what they can do to reduce their dependencies. 

Since your objective is to ‘convert’ them to help the environment, the first task is to engage them emotionally. There are a lot of strong content available online, especially on YouTube. Have your Instructional Designers to curate material and offer it to them in small chunks. Remember, it should make staff members sign up to the cause, not make them weep inconsolably. There are several such videos on the internet that are so emotionally draining that they appear repugnant. So, let your curators realise the difference and stick to those that achieve the objective. 

Once you’ve gathered the curated material, start building your training. Create one or two catchy phrases. Let’s say if the name of the restaurant is ‘Jamie’s’, then make it something like, ‘Jamie’s Loves the Planet’ or ‘Jamies Destroys Plastics’. This would rally the staff members and make them own up the cause. You can create some catchy logo, poster, etc. You can declare ‘No Plastic Day’ in a month when posters can adorn all over the restaurant and all staff members take the pledge to rid their workplace of that sweet-talking villain. 

Once the culture is established, you need to now convert the emotion into knowledge. This is important because as much as people are emotional, they will need action items. You need to tell them what needs to be done to eradicate plastic from their restaurant. 

Prevalent Plastic Alternatives

Of course, it’s not your job to identify the alternatives. The strategy comes first, and the training comes next. Your management must have identified the alternatives and committed to implementing them. If needed you can create training about locating alternatives. This requires active research that goes beyond the job description. 

Multiple startups have come up to offer eco-friendly packaging and other solutions to the F&B industry.  The last time you went to a café and ordered your favourite smoothie, you might have noticed that the straw was different than what you were used to. It is most likely that it was made of paper or bamboo or even pasta. Plastic straws are one of the biggest contributors to the plastic landfills and can cause particularly nasty damage to marine life. Numerous institutions have gone plastic-straw free, including Starbucks, which announced they will be free of plastic straws by 2020.

Apart from straws, there are many innovations that offer alternative options. 

Some options are explored below. 

  • Kitchen gloves and cutlery made out of bioplastics. Bioplastics are made out of renewable biomass resources, such as vegetable fats, corn starch, food waste, etc. They are completely compostable. So it’s a complete cycle – they are made out of the compost pit and can end up there after use.
  • Apart from paper or metal straws, there are also compostable straws, which are made out of apples or avocado stones. These again can be thrown into the compost pit after consumption. These offer a better alternative to paper straws as they’re made out of kitchen waste, which is going to be of no use anyway. And also paper straws still have a considerable amount of environmental impact by way of a high carbon footprint and by virtue of the fact that they are, by nature, a single-use item. 
  • There are also many other alternatives available to plastic packaging in restaurants – from clin foil to washing brushes – which have been rapidly gaining popularity.
  • Companies, such as Zume, are providing compostable packaging for takeout. 

Call to Action

Once the alternatives are identified and the implementation plan is in place, you need to shift the training gear. Learning interventions spreading awareness and providing information about alternatives is a great place to begin. But this isn’t a problem that gets solved by just providing information; it needs action! And a great way to put these ideas into action is by not ending your learning interventions – keep it ongoing and give your learners actionable tasks. 

As L&D professionals, we can assign goals from the training. Making the restaurant plastic free is not an overnight activity. It needs to be carefully and gradually implemented. Punctuate your learning intervention by making learners create action plans – summarizing how they would implement their learnings in the real world. And make these action plans simple and easy to observe. Don’t give them a three-tab spreadsheet with five pivot tables! It will never get done. Of course, the action plan should align with organizational milestones.

Understanding the Final Consumer

Remember, creating a plastic-free world isn’t a one-way street. F&B is a service industry – so any change needs to take the customers into consideration. Ultimately, the entire effort would fall flat if the customers are not excited about the changes the restaurant makes. For instance, a paper or a bamboo straw may not be as convenient as the plastic one. A child might break a bamboo straw and that may cause injury. Plastic alternatives may have shorter expiry date due to their biodegradable property. You need to create awareness among the customers too and take their buy in. You can start promoting the message in your restaurant app  and create a special training module to talk about how to get customers to sign up to your cause. 

When it comes to a habit-changing decision, restaurants must make it easier for their customers to actually make that choice. This can manifest in numerous ways – from something as small as asking whether they need cutlery to slightly harder tasks like ensuring eco-friendly packaging is available. 

Most people, when they order food, are at home or office. They don’t necessarily need cutlery, but the food is delivered with it anyway. An option to ask the customers if they need cutlery or not can help reduce consumption of millions of plastic spoons and forks. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. The food delivery app Seamless estimates that in 2013 alone they were able to save more than a million pieces of plastic cutlery just by giving their consumers an option to indicate they don’t need plastic cutlery. These are small innovations but indicate how making such minor changes can go a very long way.

Achieving a Plastic-free World

Achieving a plastic-free world is going to be no easy task. Plastic is everywhere around us. The alternatives available to plastic are still in the early stages and can be more expensive, but the cost of not switching to these alternatives can be higher than you can imagine. Given the adverse impact plastic has on our environment, coupled with consumers’ demands today makes a compelling case for the F&B industry to take this problem very seriously. In 2018, many consumers from the UK sent many packets of chips back to the manufacturer because the material was not recyclable!

A bit of innovation coupled with customer-centricity can go a very long way in eliminating plastic from the F&B industry. Things are already changing and the world is coming up with new alternatives every day. Hopefully the day plastic is completely eliminated from our lives is not very far, and no more turtles would have plastic straws stuck up their noses.

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