Exploring the Potential for Reusable Take-Out Packaging in Maine

Institution: University of Maine
Sponsor: Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions

Variety of food takeout containers on counter in front of white background
Photo: Vitalii Matokha/Shutterstock

Engaging with Maine municipalities and restaurateurs to help reduce single-use packaging in the waste stream.

According to Maine’s 2021 report on waste generation and disposal, residents are generating more waste per capita over time, despite state-initiated goals to reduce this number.

Studies estimate that 36% of the municipal waste stream is composed of single-use packaging materials (Ceolho et al. 2020) and 50% of office waste is made up of take-out food containers (Jiang 2020). Only a small portion of that material is recyclable and far too much of it ends up in landfills or places where it should not be—in our oceans, soils, and even in our bodies (Ng et al. 2018). And according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 78% of the 39 million tons of disposable packaging landfilled each year (EPA 2015) can be attributed to restaurants.

Reusable packaging models for restaurants are emerging across the United States and around the world. While early research by advocacy groups suggests that reusable packaging can save restaurants money, build customer loyalty, and reduce negative environmental impacts (UpStream 2021), very little is known about the costs and benefits of different models. This project will explore what strategies might work best for Maine’s unique restaurants.

In contrast to single-use packaging, reusable packaging can withstand up to 1,000 use cycles, reducing the need to produce novel packaging for each item purchased. Despite the increased resources that are initially required to make reusable products, their environmental impact, per use, is just a fraction of the impact from single-use containers.

Recent changes in the waste management sector, such as China’s National Sword policy and the COVID-19 pandemic, have highlighted how easily our waste processing systems can be overwhelmed. While replacement materials, such as compostable and biodegradable plastics, were introduced to reduce the environmental impact of packaging materials, they often do not decompose as intended and provide little, if any, reduction to net carbon emissions. Further, substituting one waste material for another does not address the goal of reducing waste.

The major challenges to the success of reusable packaging systems come from return rates and consumer participation. For businesses, the return rate will determine whether reusable systems will be economically viable. For consumers, convenience will play a large part in their ability and willingness to participate.

Building on previous stakeholder engagement and research by the Mitchell Center’s Materials Management Research Group, researchers will partner with community stakeholders for a series of workshops designed to explore the practical, economic and environmental implications of switching to reusable containers in restaurant take-out programs. The research team will engage with stakeholders from restaurants, municipal and regulatory groups, and waste managers in order to explore the diverse range of issues that reusable packaging models might face. They will also conduct a series of interviews with businesses and organizations already employing reusable take-out containers and provide a set of case studies to highlight the challenges and benefits of each system.

This study will culminate in a written paper and resource guide for stakeholders to reference as they seek to implement their own reusable packaging programs. The research team plans to test reusable packaging pilot programs with participating restaurants and municipalities to better understand how these systems could operate in Maine.

Project Leads

  • Cynthia Isenhour, Associate Professor, Anthropology, and Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow, UMaine
  • Jared Entwistle, master’s student, Ecology and Environmental Sciences and Maine Business School, UMaine

Research Team

  • Brieanne Berry, Ph.D. candidate, Anthropology, UMaine
  • Travis Blackmer, Lecturer, School of Economics, and Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow, UMaine
  • Michael Haedicke, Associate Professor, Sociology, and Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow, UMaine
  • Susanne Lee, Faculty Fellow, Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, UMaine
  • Jean MacRae, Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow, UMaine
  • Deborah Saber, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing, and Mitchell Center Faculty Fellow, UMaine
  • Linda Silka, Senior Fellow, Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, UMaine

Project Partners

  • Greg Dugal, Executive Director, Hospitality Maine/Maine Restaurant Association
  • Victor Horton, Executive Director, Maine Resource Recovery Association (MRRA)
  • Megan Pryor, Sustainability Analyst, Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)
  • Christine Adamowicz, Sustainable Maine Outreach Coordinator, Natural Resource Council of Maine
  • Lisa Silva, Director, Maine CDC Health Inspection Office

Updates and Resources