Innovate Blog
The growing demand for reusable foodservice products

Friday December 14, 2018

Ask the Expert: Jo Gilroy (Head of Sustainability).

We asked our Sustainability expert ‘For foodservice operators looking to introduce reusable products alongside their range of disposables and food packaging, what are the most important factors they should consider?’

And here’s what she told us…

Sustainability Expert – Jo Gilroy Twitter – @JoannaGilroy

This time last year, travelling a busy commuter route, you’d be hard pushed to see anyone holding a reusable coffee cup, it was all disposable cups – normally of the paper variety. Fast forward just 12 months and it’s a different scene altogether. Regulars queuing for their coffee-to-go are increasingly clutching reusable cups, washed and ready for the next refill. An important shift in on-the-go drink consumption has taken place and it’s happened very quickly.

Reusable cups and travel mugs in all different shapes and sizes have appeared on the market and it’s easy for consumers to choose the one that best meets their needs. The sales of reusable cups are up, and they continue to grow. In 2018, at Bunzl Catering Supplies we launched 5 new ranges of reusable cups, including the world’s first reusable cup made entirely from used paper cups (rCUP – a Which? best buy) and a reusable cup that flattens down to fit into your pocket (Pokito).

On the back of the success of reusable cups, our customers in the foodservice industry are asking us what else might be swapped from disposable to reusable – straws, cutlery, sandwich packaging? Potentially, it’s yes to all, but we must not jump on the reusable bandwagon without asking the right environmentally responsible questions, such as– is this product recyclable?

Let us not forget that the majority of reusable products are also made from plastic. Their material type, reuse life and end of life options are massively important factors in whether they have a positive impact on our environment overall.

Let’s start with material type.  Reusable products tend to stick with four core materials: plastic, metal and glass for food service items, and woven fabrics and plastic for reusable bags.  Different materials have different environmental pros and cons.  For example, a reusable glass product can be anywhere between 4 and 6 times the weight of the equivalent plastic reusable product.  Consequently, the carbon impact of glass reusables is much higher.

Quality is also an important factor.  Reusable products must first and foremost be consistently used. The heavier the material’s environmental footprint, determined by factors such as where the product is made, the weight of the material and the energy required for manufacture, the more times the reusable must be reused in order to have the equivalent environmental impact as the disposable alternative.

For example, to have a lower environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag, a reusable plastic bag needs to be reused about 11 times, and a cotton bag, 131 times.  The average plastic reusable coffee cup needs to be reused anywhere between 20 and 100 times.  For other materials is can be over 1000 times.  The reusable product itself must be of a good enough, long lasting quality to allow for such high reuse rates. Let us also not forget the need for energy and water efficient dishwashers, and cleaning products for when the product needs to be washed.

And then finally, the end of life.  A reusable item that cannot be easily recycled, and ideally upcycled at its end of life seems contradictory and a missed opportunity.  Ultimately, plastic reusable products are still plastics and if littered, will cause environmental harm.

The growing uptake of reusable products demonstrates that consumers are actively looking for better ways to consume and dispose without hurting the environment, even when it impacts their daily habits or routines.  This can only be a fantastic thing – and I believe that reusable products have their rightful place in a more sustainable society. But I’d ask all of our customers to think carefully about the reusable products they introduce – let them bring true environmental value by being effectively designed, locally manufactured quality products that are designed to be recycled over and over again at their end of life.


Introducing reusable products to our customers forms part of our strategy for delivering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 – target 3. In 2018, we adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as our road-map for action. The SDGs underpin our Sustainable Future programme and environmental targets for 2020.

For more information on our range of reusable cups, view our informative pdf or get in touch with us today.

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