The Dirty Truth About Disposable Foodware 

Most cities today are like a foodie paradise. You can stroll down the block or type a few keystrokes into your phone and order almost anything. So much of the world’s cuisine is at your fingertips, and food delivery companies put it all within your reach in 30 minutes or less.

But all this convenience comes with a cost. Take the trendy fast-casual dining experience, where you sit down at a restaurant for a delicious meal, but you end up throwing a pile of garbage away when you’re done. Or how about when you sit down at a coffee shop, and even though they have real mugs behind the counter, everyone is drinking out of disposable cups. Or when you’re ordering takeout food to your home or office, and they throw in plastic cutlery and napkins and all this stuff you don’t actually need, not to mention the bags and single-use containers that come as a matter of course.

Now think about these same actions repeated billions of times a day by billions of people living all over the world - day after day - year after year. In addition to the plastic pollution and disposal costs, every time we toss a single-use item, we’re also throwing away all the natural resources - the trees, the oil, the water and the energy - it took to make and get that product into our hands.

Just like UPSTREAM, the Overbrook Foundation is committed to reversing these trends. Last week, they released The Dirty Truth About Disposable Foodware - a report outlining the environmental and economic costs associated with throw-away foodware, like single-use cups, plates, lids and to-go boxes. Authored by Ellie Moss and Rich Grousset, the report details the economic costs to businesses and cities from managing disposable foodware and shows how throw-away products are negatively impacting cities, consumers, and restaurant owners. It also makes the case that “reduce and reuse solutions” have the potential to eliminate the need for 63% of disposable foodware. 

Here are the main findings of the report nationally:

* $19 billion USD - what restaurants spend annually on disposable foodware

* 561 billion disposable items used in the US each year

* 4.9 million tons of waste generated from food service disposables annually 

* $1 billion USD annual cost to manage foodservice disposables in the U.S. 

* Percentage of foodservice disposables used for application: 75% for take-out; 21% for dining in ; 4% for delivery in 2016, “though more recent data suggest that this number has increased sharply since then.”

In New York City: 

* $42 million USD - annual cost to NYC residents and businesses to manage foodservice disposables 

* 10% of the paper and cardboard waste collected were paper/fiber foodservice disposables at 134,000 tons 

* 8% of all plastic waste collected was plastic foodservice disposables at 72,000 tons

The report focuses on four solutions:

1. Vote with your Meals: “Citizens and restaurant owners can make reusables the new normal and accelerate the transition to the disposable-free restaurant meal future.” At UPSTREAM, we’re working to create the conditions for this transition through our Culture Change, Policy, and Business Innovation projects. For more information, please contact

2. Create Enabling Conditions through Policy: “Citizens, organizers, restaurant owners and policymakers can work individually and together to pass enabling policies that support the adoption of reusables. This could be through economic incentives (i.e. a fee on disposables), hygiene laws that appropriately permit reusable containers, or laws such as Berkeley’s ban on use of disposables for in-house dining.” We’ve developed a model reusable foodware ordinance, and created the National Reuse Network with more than 80 organizers working in 20 states. As I write this, we’ve helped pass versions of the ordinance in 7 cities with more than 1m residents and 8,000 restaurants. There are active ordinance campaigns in NYC, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and we’re in conversations with policymakers and potential campaign partners in Boston, Portland (OR), Seattle and Honolulu. To get involved, please contact

3. Make Using Reusables a No-Brainer:. “Reusables service companies, meal delivery services, entrepreneurs, and funders and accelerators all have a role to play in making reusable products and services a life upgrade accessible to all. We’re currently working on a commercial project to accelerate the adoption of reusables by creating an online exchange where businesses can find the reuse services they need at a price they can afford. For more information, please contact

4. Implement Large-Scale Pilot Projects: “Anyone can start, join, or support a large-scale demonstration of the viability of reusables in his or her city and use it as a model to inspire others to do the same.” UPSTREAM’s Business Innovation Project is currently providing services for large-scale venues to transition from single-use to reuse. As I write this, we have pilots going at 3 venues with more than 5.8 million annual visitors. For more information, please contact

This report shows there’s a better way than throw-away. Imagine you’re going to catch a ballgame, or heading out to a concert, or you’re taking your kid to the zoo or aquarium. Now imagine there’s no more throw-away stuff. When you sit down to eat, you’re eating on real plates with real cutlery. When you grab a soda or a beer, it’s in a reusable cup that you can either pay to keep as a souvenir or turn back in and get your money back. How much more enjoyable would these places be with nothing to throw away? 

Now imagine taking this idea to an entire city - no more disposable foodware when you sit down to eat, and all the restaurants and food delivery businesses use  reusable to-go cups and containers that are part of a community-wide system run by innovative new businesses. 

The really great news is that this is happening right now. All over the world, businesses, institutions, and communities are ditching disposables and creating 21st century reuse systems that are convenient, sustainable and more fun than the old throw-away model. 

For more information on how you can get involved,
please connect with us.