October 1, 2015 |

Eco-friendly Packaging: All Boxed Up

By Daniel P. Smith

The environment is right for eco-friendly pizza boxes


As Gary and Erin Fleming prepared to open Virgil’s Plate in 2012, they scoured vendor’s guides looking for the right pizza box to house their artisan, square-sliced pies. The husband-and-wife team wanted a visual package that would be as distinctive as their pizza, but one that would also hold some compelling environmental qualities.

And they couldn’t find the right fit.

“So we just went with the standard pizza box that everyone else uses,” says Gary Fleming, whose Erie, Pennsylvania-based shop offers dine-in and carryout.

About a year into operations, however, Fleming happened upon a New York-based startup touting a pizza box that transformed into four individual plates. Made from recycled and recyclable material, this GreenBox also folded into a storage unit, thereby reducing the need for plastic wrap or aluminum foil for leftovers.

In early 2014, Fleming, increasingly pushed to be a more environmentally mindful operator by Erin and his daughters, placed his first order of eco-friendly packaging. Today, he calls it another piece of his restaurant’s “green” puzzle, which includes repurposing olive oil bottles, using flour bags to collect recycled goods and purchasing glassware from thrift stores.

“Having an environmental consciousness has become more important to us and someday we’d like to become a certified green restaurant,” Fleming says. “The pizza box alone doesn’t get us there, but it’s part of this journey.”

According to a 2013 study from Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange, 51 percent of U.S. consumers said they care about the efforts of brands to help the environment, while 32 percent reported a willingness to pay more for environmentally friendly products. More recently, 64 percent of respondents from a 2015 survey from Ask Your Target Market said they were more likely to purchase from companies that used recycled or recyclable materials for their products.

Driven by rising consumer interest, greater environmental awareness and, in some cases, regulatory pressure, many pizzerias have looked to their pizza boxes and additional restaurant packaging to spotlight their environmental edge. Others, however, remain on the sustainable packaging sidelines, confused as to which environmental terms really move the needle and also unnerved by the premium prices many green packaging options carry.

pies&boxes_0825Chuck Pearson, sales manager with Arvco Container Corporation, a leading national provider of pizza boxes, says many operators struggle to distinguish marketing jargon from what’s actually better for the planet. To some, he says, eco-friendly means compostable or recyclable; to others, it means a product with various applications; and to others still, it concerns a box’s recycled content.

“So ‘it’ really depends,” Pearson says, “and that’s confusing.”

While Pearson says environmentally conscious operators routinely investigate eco-friendly packaging alternatives, he feels price remains a significant hurdle for the vast number of operators.

“Operators want to know if they’ll be paying more or less,” Pearson says. “That’s the bottom line.”

“For my buck, there’s no downside to being environmentally friendly when it comes to public perception,” Fleming adds, urging operators to de-emphasize price, at least at the outset, when investigating sustainable packaging options.

In the mid-2000s, spurred by the first tidal wave of green products, Ann Reichle, who owns two Cleveland-area Angelina’s Pizza shops, switched from traditional white pizza boxes to the more eco-friendly craft paper boxes she uses today. In the years since, Reichle has continued to track sustainable packaging newcomers as well as consumer sentiment. To date, nothing has convinced her to switch.

“Every Expo I go to, every catalog I get, I’m looking for green stuff that makes sense,” she says.

While Reichle has seen a narrowing of price between standard pizza boxes and more eco-friendly alternatives, she admits she has probably gone as far as she is going to go with Angelina’s pizza boxes as long as the cost difference survives and customers are not clamoring for change.

“You have to pick your battles wisely in this business, especially when it comes to any higher costs,” she says. “When I start hearing customers say, ‘Why don’t you have this?’ that will certainly compel me to reconsider, but we’re not there yet.”

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.