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A supply chain analysis on the food industry’s surge of waste in response to COVID-19

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a great need for United States’ restaurants to “go green” due to consumers’ habits of frequently eating out. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has caused this initiative to lose traction. While the amount of customers ordering takeout

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a great need for United States’ restaurants to “go green” due to consumers’ habits of frequently eating out. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has caused this initiative to lose traction. While the amount of customers ordering takeout has increased, there is less emphasis on sustainability.<br/>Plastic is known for its harmful effects on the environment and the extreme length of time it takes to decompose. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), almost 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans at an annual rate, threatening not only the safety of marine species, but also human health. Modern food packaging materials have included a blend of synthetic ingredients, trickling into our daily lives and polluting the air, water, and land. Single-use plastic items slowly degrade into microplastics and can take up to hundreds of years to biodegrade.<br/>Due to COVID-19, restaurants have switched to takeout and delivery options to adapt to the new business environment and guidelines enforced by the Center of Disease Control (CDC) mandated guidelines.<br/>Some of these guidelines include: notices encouraging social distancing and mask-wearing, mandated masks for employees, and easy access to sanitary supplies.<br/>This cultural shift is motivating restaurants to search for a quick, cheap, and easy fix to adapt to the increased demand of take-out and delivery methods. This increases their plastic consumption of items such as plastic bags/paper bags, styrofoam containers, and beverage cups. Plastic is the most popular takeout material because of its price and durability as well as allowing for limited contamination and easy disposability.<br/>Almost all food products come in packaging and this, more often than not, is single use. Food is the largest market out of all the packaging industry, maintaining roughly two thirds of material going to food. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that almost half of all municipal solid waste is made up of food and food packaging materials. In 2014, over 162 million tons of packaging material waste was generated in the states. This typically contains toxic inks and dyes that leach into groundwater and soil. When degrading, pieces of plastic absorb toxins like PCBs and pesticides, and then each piece will in turn release toxic chemicals like Bisphenol A. Even before being thrown away, it causes negative effects for the environment. The creation of packaging materials uses many resources such as petroleum and chemicals and then releases toxic byproducts. Such byproducts include sludge containing contaminants, greenhouse gases, and heavy metal and particulate matter emissions. Unlike many other industries, plastic manufacturing has actually increased production. Demand has increased and especially in the food industry to keep things sanitary. This increase in production is reflective of the increase in waste. <br/>Although restaurants have implemented their own sustainable initiatives to combat their carbon footprint, the pandemic has unfortunately forced restaurants to digress. For example, Just Salad, a fast food restaurant chain, incentivized customers with discounted meals to use reusable bowls which saved over 75,000 pounds of plastic per year. However, when the pandemic hit, the company halted the program to pivot towards takeout and delivery. This effect is apparent on an international scale. Singapore was in lock-down for eight weeks and during that time, 1,470 tons of takeout and food delivery plastic waste was thrown out. In addition, the Hong Kong environmental group Greeners Action surveyed 2,000 people in April and the results showed that people are ordering out twice as much as last year, doubling the use of plastic.<br/>However, is this surge of plastic usage necessary in the food industry or are there methods that can be used to reduce the amount of waste production? The COVID-19 pandemic caused a fracture in the food system’s supply chain, involving food, factory, and farm. This thesis will strive to tackle such topics by analyzing the supply chains of the food industry and identify areas for sustainable opportunities. These recommendations will help to identify areas for green improvement.

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2021-05