Packaging During A Pandemic: Providing Safe and Sustainable Options at Restaurants and Retail Stores

Packaging in a Pandemic | Food & Nutrition Magazine | Volume 9, Issue 4

When the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spread throughout the world, causing an economic downturn as businesses shut doors, industries and individuals alike were forced to adjust to a new normal. The foodservice industry pivoted operations to navigate rapidly changing legislation, supply chain disruptions and a shift in consumer eating and purchasing habits. Fear and uncertainty led to panic purchases and empty grocery store shelves. Many restaurants closed dining rooms, while others modified operations to offer outdoor seating with tables spaced at least 6-feet apart and off-premise options including takeout, curbside pickup and delivery to remain in business.

Restaurants that have modified dining options to offer takeout and delivery have had to make packaging decisions quickly, taking into consideration factors such as cost, the integrity and performance of the packaging and the food in transit, and the environmental impact. Arguably, the most important considerations in packaging decisions have been food safety and offering a “contactless” dining experience.

Selecting sustainable packaging that is recyclable or compostable can be difficult, especially for companies that are facing these decisions for the first time, as well as for those that have offered to-go options for years. Recycling and composting requirements vary depending on location, so restaurants must educate themselves on the local municipal infrastructure.

Additionally, the sheer volume of packaging in the food industry has increased during the pandemic. An increase in off-premise dining requires more napkins, plastic straws, bowls, plates, lids, utensils and cups. Furthermore, consumers want proof that their takeout or delivery food was prepared safely and not tampered with, so some restaurants now use bag seals or stickers to demonstrate safety precautions were followed.

In some states where on-premise dining has begun to reopen, many restaurants are opting for plastic water bottles and other single-use serving options. Several restaurants that previously allowed or encouraged reusable materials, such as “bring your own cup,” have paused these programs to prevent the exchange of outside items between consumers and employees. Like restaurants, many retail establishments have shifted to single-use packaging during the pandemic. Some stores request or mandate that shoppers leave reusable totes outside and bag their groceries at their cars or use the store’s plastic or paper bags.

A Look at Legislation
As the world entered crisis mode, governing bodies began to roll back enforcement of certain legislation and delay implementation of laws on the horizon. The Environmental Protection Agency temporarily suspended enforcement of numerous laws through the end of August, acknowledging the challenges companies face in monitoring and complying with these regulations.

Packaging legislation has been no exception. Before COVID-19, several states, cities and counties had enforced bans or taxes on plastic bags and straws. In February, when the coronavirus was not yet widespread in the United States, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 was introduced. To address the rise of single-use plastics and packaging at various touchpoints throughout the supply chain, this bill included a proposal for federal legislation to reduce or prohibit the manufacture and use of single-use products that are not recyclable or compostable, as well as packaging provided at the point-of-sale, such as carryout bags, plastic utensils and food containers made of polystyrene. Just a few weeks later, Capitol Hill’s attention shifted to legislation for COVID-19. Some states, including New Hampshire, have signed executive orders requiring stores to temporarily transition to plastic and paper bags rather than reusable ones. States like Maine and New York are lifting enforcement on plastic bag bans, while others are leaving it to retailers and consumers to make the decision.

Coronavirus Transmission
While recent research indicates COVID-19 may be able to live on a variety of surfaces for hours and even days or weeks, there is no evidence of the virus being transmitted through food, surfaces or packaging, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rather, scientists believe the virus mainly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets. Still, many people are concerned about potential transmission via surfaces and perceive single-use packaging as a safer alternative to reusable materials.

What the Industry Can Do
As we settle into “the new normal,” the foodservice industry has the opportunity and responsibility to provide the most environmentally friendly options possible. Businesses can do so by:

Committing to offer more sustainable packaging options. Companies that are new to packaging can learn about sustainable options through resources such as those offered for free by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Offering recycling and composting bins. Restaurants and production facilities can place bins at the front and back of the facility with clear signage and instructions for customers and staff.

Clearly labeling packaging material as recyclable or compostable. Remove the guesswork and encourage people to properly dispose of the material.

Presenting options to omit single-use packaging where possible. Some restaurants have given customers the option to decline single-use packaging when ordering online.

What Individuals Can Do
While safety is the main priority, here are ways people can do their part:

Forego single-use materials when ordering delivery or carry-out. Some online ordering platforms have this option built in; if not, place your order over the phone and ask the employee not to include utensils.

Bag groceries at your car. Leave reusable bags in your car when going to the grocery store. When checking out, skip the plastic and paper bags and reload groceries directly into your cart. Outside, transfer groceries into your reusable bags.

Educate yourself on the materials your local recycling and composting center accepts. Get a list of accepted materials from local waste and recycling haulers or Material Recovery Facilities.

Avoid “wishcycling.” This means wishfully throwing all materials into recycling bins in hopes that recycling facilities accept it. By doing so, you introduce non-recyclable materials, which can contaminate the entire bin and may prevent materials that would be accepted under normal conditions from being recycled.

Rinse and dry packaging before recycling. Most recycling centers cannot accept materials that are heavily contaminated with food scraps, so give recyclables a quick rinse and dry before disposal. Check with your local facilities to understand what is accepted when it comes to food contamination.

Compost when possible. Certain materials may be appropriate for composting rather than recycling. If the packaging indicates it is acceptable to do so, try at-home composting. While compositing facilities are not as common as recycling facilities, they can be a great option if available in your area. Requirements vary, so check with your local facility.


Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. website. Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2020 Published February 11, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2020.
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) – Cleaning and Disinfection for Households. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated July 10, 2020. Accessed August 19, 2020.
Emergency Order #10 Pursuant to Executive Order 2020-04. State of New Hampshire Office of the Governor website. Accessed August 17, 2020.
Morath SJ. The Match Between COVID-19 and Plastic Bans. The Regulatory Review website. Published May 11, 2020. Accessed August 19, 2020.
Nace T. Here’s a List of Every City in the US to Ban Plastic Bags, Will Your City be Next? Forbes website. Published September 20, 2018. Accessed August 16, 2020.
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Sheeler A.
Leave your reusable grocery bag at home in coronavirus pandemic, markets tell consumers. The Sacramento Bee website. Updated April 2, 2020. Accessed August 17, 2020.
State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation. National Conference of State Legislatures website. Published January 24, 2020. Accessed August 18, 2020.

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Marissa Thiry, RDN
Marissa Thiry is a registered dietitian at Taco Bell Corp. in Irvine, Calif. She is part of the Global Nutrition and Sustainability Team that, among other responsibilities, leads better-for-you menu innovation, nutrition communications, and sustainability initiatives for the organization.