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5. July 2023, 5 min read

Less is more: A guide to sustainable food packaging for restaurants

Author: Birgitte Brøndum
Person opening a bag of takeaway food in sustainable food packaging.
Man unwrapping takeaway food delivered in sustainable food packaging
Photo: Syda Productions

Plastic packaging from takeaway food significantly contributes to the litter found in the world’s oceans. This debris harms the marine animals and plants that call the ocean home. By making more informed and responsible choices when selecting your restaurant’s food packaging, you can contribute to cleaner oceans. While it might seem like a small step, it’s a step that makes a difference.

Findings from a large 2021 study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, showed that takeaway items such as plastic bags and wrappers, food containers and single-use cutlery, glass bottles and cans make up the biggest share of litter in the oceans.

This is a significant and escalating problem that we cannot ignore. It’s also an issue we can help alleviate by making informed decisions. In this article, we will explore how to navigate the complex landscape of sustainable food packaging, because not everything with a ‘green’ label necessarily translates to sustainability.

5 tips for a more sustainable food packaging strategy

Avoid food packaging when possible

According to the Danish Restaurants and Cafés Association (DRC), the first and most effective step is to evaluate whether all the food packaging entering and exiting your restaurant is necessary. This includes the packaging of products delivered from your suppliers. If possible, engage in a discussion with your suppliers about their packaging.

If the packaging is necessary, determine how and if the material can be recycled. To manage recycling responsibly, it’s essential to ensure all staff members are informed about the recycling process. A good recycling strategy is only effective when everyone at every step can contribute.

Can I use my restaurant’s logo on sustainable food packaging?

Absolutely. However, if you choose to do so, the optimal solution is to use a sticker or another type of removable logo. Ensure it’s attached with glue that dissolves at temperatures no higher than 60 degrees Celsius.

Recyclable food packaging
Photo: Professor25

Encourage your guests to recycle

I your guests bring home your food as takeaway, remind them that the packaging can be recycled. Consider including a small note or leaflet in the bag alongside the food, explaining how to recycle each type of material. If guests are dining in your restaurant, it’s preferable to use porcelain plates and cutlery. However, when that’s not possible, ensure it’s easy for guests to recycle their food packaging after enjoying their meal.

Better yet, encourage guests to bring their own containers when buying takeaway from your restaurant. This not only saves you money but is also better for the environment, and it creates a homey atmosphere! This practice also signals to your guests that your restaurant takes a responsible approach to food packaging.

Choose food packaging made of mono-material

Food packaging made from a single material, also known as a mono-material, is the optimal choice. This is because mono-materials can be recycled much more quickly and easily than packaging made from mixed materials, such as those combining plastic with cardboard. Examine the material composition of the packaging materials you are considering for purchase, and inquire with your suppliers about the composition of the materials they use.

If it has to be plastic, opt for clear

While less plastic is always better, if it’s necessary to use some, go for clear options. Clear plastics and plastics in lighter colours are easier to reuse than darker, coloured plastics and can be recycled into high-quality new materials.

Takeaway food in a more sustainable carton container
Photo: Ivan Babydov

Sustainable food packaging: 4 of the better options


Aluminium is a suitable choice for more sustainable food packaging, especially when the food needs to be warmed or kept warm. Its resistance to low and high temperatures (ranging from -40 to 350°C) makes its flexibility and durability an ideal choice. It’s 100% leak-proof, capable of holding liquids like salad dressings or sauces without any leakage. Moreover, aluminium has a high reuse rate because the material is easy to recycle.

Wheat straw

Wheat straw is a fibre material derived from the straw of harvested wheat. Traditionally discarded, these straws are now increasingly used as fibre for food packaging. Wheat straw packaging is based entirely on renewable materials. It’s worth noting that some wheat straw materials contain fluorinated substances that don’t degrade easily in nature. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to opt for wheat straw packaging labelled ‘without added fluorinated substances.’ Wheat straw packaging can withstand temperatures from 0 to 100°C, is suitable for food that needs to stay crisp, and can also hold liquids for more than 15 minutes.


Although bamboo materials aren’t recyclable, they’re among the more sustainable types of food packaging. Why? Bamboo is a plant that grows easily and quickly, requires very little water, and absorbs carbon dioxide. Bamboo packaging is suitable for food that needs to maintain a good, crunchy texture and can withstand temperatures from -60 to 100°C. However, it’s not suitable for containing liquids.

Some producers mix bamboo with plastic materials and misleadingly label them as bamboo. This practice is not only illegal but also not sustainable. Keep an eye on the material composition when you purchase bamboo packaging. What you want is pure bamboo.

Carton and Paper

Paper is a flat fibre material, most often derived from wood, though it can also be made from other fibres such as bamboo. Carton is a sturdier paper material produced from wood fibres. Its stiffness and durability make it suitable for various types of food packaging. Paper and cartons are recyclable if they haven’t been in direct contact with food. If not, they can be recycled as paper or cartons. Otherwise, they must be sorted as residual waste.

When choosing carton and paper materials, keep an eye out for the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification. This certification guarantees that the material originates from a forest where no more trees are felled than the forest can regrow. Furthermore, FSC ensures that forestry practices protect the forest’s biological diversity and that forest workers are provided with education, safety equipment, and fair wages.

Source: Thehost.dk (DRC)

More sustainable food packaging options
Photo: Yuliya Furman

Get inspired by other sustainable restaurants

Navigating all areas of sustainability can be quite overwhelming. We all want to do the best we can, but we also need to get things done. If you’re unsure where to start, it can be helpful to draw inspiration from other restaurants. Despite it seeming like an impossible achievement, some restaurants have successfully implemented zero-waste strategies. For instance, Nolla, located in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, and on the list of Finland’s 50 best restaurants in 2023, is the first zero-waste restaurant in the North. This means that the restaurant operates without trash bags, plastic packaging, cling film, vacuum bags, or foil. Even if your restaurant isn’t ready to make such a drastic change right now, establishments like Nolla serve as reassurance that it’s possible to run a successful restaurant with significantly less food packaging and other materials.