In the jan/san industry, green has been a buzzword for cleaning products and methods for years. Now, it’s reaching the foodservice disposable sector in a major way.

Instead of traditional cups, containers, plates and bowls made from foam, plastic, aluminum and non-recycled paper, customers are turning to green foodservice disposables, many of which can be recycled or composted once used.

“There’s no question [green] is here. Foodservice disposables has become a really big part of our business,” says Christopher Nolan, president at H.T. Berry Co. in Canton, Mass. “When I see all the research and development coming out, I get excited. We have a good plan that I think is going to grow.”

What makes these products environmentally friendly is how they are made, and what they are made of. Green product offerings can be separated into two groups: sustainable and compostable, says Erny Davis, vice president of the food service division for Hill and Markes Inc. in Amsterdam, N.Y.

Sustainable products are made by using renewable energy and made from post-consumer fiber, and once used, are recycled efficiently. Compostable products are made from corn, sugar cane, starch, or recycled paper. In addition, many compostable disposables are made from poly lactic acids (PLA), which is a plastic substitute derived from corn. These plastics use half the fossil fuel that it takes to produce traditional disposables. When taken to composting centers, compostable products break down in the presence of warmth, moisture, oxygen and/or bacteria, explains Davis.

By recycling and composting disposables, end users are truly helping the environment by creating less waste for landfills, says Nolan.

However, many products are labeled as “green” but there aren't federal guidelines to offer measurement for such ratings. When green cleaning supplies were first introduced there was a lot of misunderstanding about the products; standards such as Green Seal, EcoLogo and Design for the Environment are what cleared up confusion for end users. Distributors expect a similar situation to occur with green foodservice disposables, says Bill Weidmaier, president of Iowa-Des Moines Supply Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa.

While waiting for standards, it is up to distributors to educate customers on what they’re buying. Many manufacturers do a good job of listing products’ ingredients, whether it’s a plant- or food-based material, which distributors appreciate knowing and can pass along to end users.

The green disposable trend is slowly reaching the Midwest, but has a stronger following on the coasts. One of the issues Weidmaier says is occurring in central Iowa is the lack of compost centers. The products are mainly ending up in landfills.

Jennifer Rosenberg, president of Acorn Distributors in Indianapolis, agrees, saying that in Indiana the same problem exists, though some privately held facilities do their own composting, as do individual residents. Regardless, she says, customers want to see green disposables, and feel better about selling them.

She likens this change in attitude to that occurring today with BPA-free products, noting that eventually it will become the norm.

“Eventually every cup you have will be able to be recycled in one way or another,” says Rosenberg. “You won’t even ask because you’ll know that’s the way they’re made.”

Weidmaier believes that the trend will see a tremendous boost once the big restaurant chains embrace and promote it.

Demand for these products will continue to increase and more manufacturers are pursuing this market, says Davis. In the future, there will be more efficient processing, product materials and an expanding customer base, which will result in “more cost-effective products.”

Whether made sustainably or derived from plants, green foodservice disposables are proving to be a beneficial marketing strategy (and profitable service) for both jan/san distributors and their clients. Growth will only reduce the cost in making these products, but also increase their effectiveness and affordability.   

Jennifer Bradley is a freelance writer based in East Troy, Wis.