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The Good, the Bad, and the Yucky: Single-use Versus Reusable Foodservice Packaging

At FPI, we get a lot of requests from media, consultants, professors and their students, etc. for our thoughts on a number of topics. The latest request was a topic I LOVE to talk about… a student was doing a story for her environmental journalism class (I didn’t even know they offered these classes – that gives you some insight into what students are learning these days!), and she was writing an article about a local entrepreneur trying to start a company for reusable takeout food containers. She wanted some data, which unfortunately I couldn’t give her. But I did offer to share my two cents on the topic.


I told her about how foodservice packaging like paper and plastic cups, plates and bowls were invented over 100 years ago to provide a more sanitary alternative to their reusable counterparts and help protect public health. I shared with her that over the years, FPI had commissioned independent studies with third-party laboratories to confirm the sanitary advantage of single-use foodservice packaging over reusables and encouraged her to check out the results in our “Sanitation” related Resources. To save you a step, here’s what our latest study revealed…


In 2012, health inspectors visited 30 different foodservice establishments in Sacramento County, Calif. and swabbed nearly 300 single-use cups, plates, bowls and cutlery and their reusable counterparts. These swabs were sent to a laboratory for testing and can you guess what they found?


·        Evidence of Enterococcus and Staphylococcus – bacteria that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills – was below the detection limit on both the single-use and reusable items. Certainly good news for the foodservice industry.


·        Not such good news when it comes to coliform bacteria, which is usually traced back to fecal matter (ewww!) and can cause bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, cramps, nausea, vomiting and occasionally fever. If that’s not bad enough, it can be fatal in the young, elderly and immune-compromised. The results of the swabs taken in Sacramento County showed evidence of coliforms on four percent of reusable items and on none of the single-use items. Hmm, wonder what would have happened to those lucky customers if they had been served the reusable plate, bowl and spoon that the laboratory determined had over six times the coliforms?!?!


Another test was the mere presence of bacteria, which could indicate a food safety or public health hazard. Single-use items were again shown to be more sanitary, with statistically significant lower bacteria counts compared to the reusable items. Consider these test results:


·        Over one-third (gulp!) of the reusable plates and bowls tested had higher than acceptable microbial levels, compared to nine percent of single-use cups.

·        One quarter of the reusable forks, knives and spoons tested had higher than acceptable microbial levels, compared to just over ten percent of single-use cups.

·        Seventeen percent of reusable cups tested had higher than acceptable microbial levels, compared to only seven percent of single-use cups.


I encouraged our budding young journalist to contact her local environmental health department and ask for their opinion on the idea of reusable take out containers. I guarantee they’d have a similar response to mine – a single-use item is always going to be a better choice than a reusable one when it comes to protecting public health and sanitation.


For more reasons why single-use items are superior to reusables, please take a look at my September 24th blog post titled "Why is Foodservice Packaging the Sensible Solution?".


Posted By Lynn M. Dyer (President) | 10/22/2013 9:56:37 AM