• The pandemic has changed the way pizzeria operators are approaching their packaging, and they’re often making it more fun and interactive.
  • As sustainability becomes more important, GreenToGo in Durham, N.C. has developed an innovative reusable-packaging solution to reduce waste.

Related: What if every restaurant served plant-based and sustainable meals?

By Tracy Morin

Thanks to their menu items’ natural ability to travel well for delivery and carryout, pizzerias have become true heroes in the pandemic. But the massive numbers of dine-in sales converting into to-go orders make packaging more important than ever—from standpoints of the customer experience, environmental sustainability and food safety. Luckily, packaging providers and pizzerias alike are meeting these evolving needs with some creative solutions. 

Personal Touches

The pandemic has changed the way pizzeria operators are approaching their packaging—and, in some cases, they’re making it a lot more fun and interactive. David Kranker, marketing manager at Budget Branders in Hudsonville, Michigan, works with pizzerias on custom packaging and has witnessed plenty of creativity from his clients. “Some shops added game elements to their boxes for families to play together after eating—things like tic-tac-toe on the box or a cutout hole on the top to use the box for cornhole,” Kranker explains. “I’ve also seen shops print beautiful abstract art on their boxes to essentially make them look like a painted canvas that can be hung up on the wall. Not everyone is going to hang up pizza boxes as fine art, but some die-hard pizza fans will—and that’s great brand recognition, if you can make yourself a permanent fixture in someone’s home.”

Kranker has even noted pizzerias taking a crowdsourced approach, in which they’ll print customer-provided art or drawings onto their boxes—a great way to get customers further invested in the product, since they love seeing art from friends or family on the packaging. Other pizzerias will take customer requests for drawings on the inside of the boxes to brighten someone’s day. “It creates a special experience for customers, who are often going to post it on social media, which increases brand reach,” Kranker says. “If shops are willing to do this, I would suggest they promote that they do it on their website and on social media to get more requests—and, ultimately, more social shares.”

Photo courtesy GreenToGo

Material World

Lauren Olson, zero waste manager for World Centric in Rohnert Park, California, notes that food and packaging waste (including from foodservice) account for a staggering 45% of all materials that end up in U.S. landfills each year. Meanwhile, the boost in takeout and delivery business as a result of the pandemic has only increased single-use plastic packaging waste.

However, using renewable and compostable materials for packaging go a long way toward helping reduce environmental impact—a factor that’s becoming more important to customers every year in the face of well-publicized concerns like climate change. Olson stresses that today’s consumers are looking to support restaurant operators who are making an effort to operate sustainably. “Look for foodservice ware that’s certified commercially compostable by ASTM D6400 standards,” she recommends. “Choose compostable packaging that’s made from renewable plant-based materials, like bagasse, sugarcane, wheatstraw or other plant fibers.”

Related: Americans are increasingly concerned about food and sustainability

Fortunately, Olson adds, the past few years have seen a significant shift away from using petroleum-based plastics and virgin wood fiber as raw materials in foodservice packaging. “There is growing momentum toward use of plant-based materials like sugarcane, bamboo, and plant-based plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA)—to the benefit of our planet’s future,” she says.

Photo by GP Pro

Safety Meets Sustainability

The pandemic has put even more emphasis on cross-contamination and safety, but how do those requirements intersect with consumers’ sustainability demands? Manufacturers are increasingly focused on solutions that keep both in mind. For example, Atlanta-based GP PRO, a division of Georgia-Pacific, recently introduced a cutlery dispensing system that wraps utensils only at the end used for eating, helping reduce cross-contamination while using 60% less material than fully wrapped cutlery. (The company also found that dispensing systems reduce cutlery consumption by 31%, compared to open cutlery bins.)

“I think what’s most exciting is the evolution of automation and its role in foodservice and foodservice packaging,” adds Alec Frisch, vice president and general manager of foodservice for GP PRO. To that end, the company’s new Automated Sealing Machine places a tamper-evident, spill-resistant sealed film on to-go cups so that fountain beverages remain hygienically contained in the cup until the customer inserts a straw or removes the film. “The operator doesn’t handle the lid or even the open brim of the cup, and the tamper-evident seal helps promote overall food safety,” Frisch notes. “It virtually eliminates the use of high-impact polystyrene lids and uses 60% less plastic than most snap-on lids.”

This drink sealer was created because the company found, in a recent consumer survey, that beverage delivery is often rated unsatisfactory. Results showed that 34% of respondents received a fountain beverage that had totally or partially spilled in transit, another 34% received a drink that appeared messy or unclean, and 21% had reason to believe their beverage had been tampered with. “The growth in the takeout, delivery and drive-thru market is keeping many operators afloat right now,” Frisch says. “But if operators want to see that off-premise growth continue, we need to solve these customer concerns and help operators confidently incorporate fountain beverages into their off-premise offerings—and reap the high margins that fountain drink sales provide.”

“There is growing momentum toward use of plant-based materials like sugarcane, bamboo, and plant-based plastics such as polylactic acid (PLA)—to the benefit of our planet’s future.”

— Lauren Olson, World Centric

Clean and Green

In Durham, North Carolina, GreenToGo was established in 2017 to offer a packaging-reuse service that incorporates a customer mobile app and necessary behind-the-scenes logistics so that businesses can quit using disposable food packaging altogether. Crystal Dreisbach, the inventor, explains that the GreenToGo service offers recovery of reusable containers, including collection from restaurants, and transport to its central wash facility, as well as washing, sanitization and drying, then restocking to restaurants.

Related: Whatever happened to Zume’s pizza-making robots?

Eventually, Dreisbach set her sights on the pizza biz. “We wanted to begin adding reusable pizza boxes to our circulation, so we purchased a test set of reusable pizza boxes from ARRRC so that we could test the concept in Pie Pushers Pizza in Durham,” she says. “Unfortunately, none of the reusable pizza boxes on the market are up to the design criteria and standards for a city-wide program like ours, so we designed our own and are working on getting funding to go to manufacture. Pizzerias can offer the reusable box option on their online order forms for customers to select, or they can switch entirely to reusable—and never put their pizza in cardboard again. The benefits to restaurants are economic, environmental and social.”

“Pizzerias can offer the reusable box option on their online order forms…or they can switch entirely to reusable—and never put their pizza in cardboard again.”

— Crystal Dreisbach, GreenToGo

Olson notes some key pre-pandemic stats: With approximately 3 billion pizzas sold in the U.S. each year, about 2 billion are transported in cardboard pizza boxes. “That’s a lot of pizza boxes and even more waste—roughly 674,614,000 pounds of cardboard,” Olson says. “Food residue contaminates a pizza box, making it unacceptable to recyclers seeking clean material. And that will, ultimately, relegate the box to the landfill.” Hence, for a more sustainable disposable solution, World Centric utilized molding technology to develop the two-piece, compostable PizzaRound container, using tree-free, plant-based materials that hold in heat, improve crispness and eliminate the need for pizza box liners or tents.

Of course, pizzeria owners who are taking steps toward sustainability—in terms of boxes or any other packaging—should be sure to share their efforts with customers via their social pages, websites, in-store signage and more. While not everyone may take note, the growing number of customers who care about the planet and their communities will greatly appreciate these efforts!  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.