As reusable food containers gain popularity, what does your business need to know?

“I’ve got $17 and a small business, what do you want to do?”

KeepCup founder Abigail Forsyth. Source: Supplied.

Given the surge in popularity for Keep Cups after the ABC’s War on Waste program, some SMEs might be confused about what they need to do to ensure reusable containers are used properly at their business.

Your customers might be asking for something as simple as putting a salad in their $5 plastic container, or even just pouring a coffee into a KeepCup.

Health and safety regulations around the containers businesses provide to customers are thoroughly outlined by regulators such as Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).

In the FSANZ code, businesses are directed to only use packaging material which is “fit for its intended use”, and is unlikely to cause contamination before or during the packaging process.

The code does not explicitly outline rules around reusable containers, however, state-specific bodies such as the NSW Food Authority outline the situations in which businesses may re-use containers, noting they must be “properly cleaned and, if necessary, sanitised”.

“The number of times these containers can be safely reused is limited by how well they retain their properties after being washed in hot water and detergent,” the Food Authority outlines.

However, these guidelines tend to apply more to containers provided by businesses themselves, rather than those brought in by customers.

Environmental blogger at Gippsland Unwrapped, Tammy Logan, last year looked at when businesses could use customer’s reusable containers, and suggests whether or not a business allows this is more about company policy and preference.

“If a business has a policy to not accept customer containers for the storage of food purchased, then that is a business decision rather than a restraint due to legislation,” Logan wrote.

Logan also writes businesses cannot prevent customers from taking home leftovers in their own container, nor do local councils have jurisdiction over businesses accepting reusable packaging.

Requirements within the Food Safety code also outlines that packaged food must be sold with a label, however when the food is packaged in the presence of the purchaser, such as if it were being put in a reusable container, labels are not required.

Education on benefits could go a long way

A spokesperson for FSANZ told SmartCompany each local State and Territory food enforcement agency has specific guidelines for “laws and policies which may apply to food businesses”.

Anthony Peyton, founder of environmental consultancy GreenChip, believes businesses refusing customer’s reusable containers are likely concerned about the “grey area” of food hygiene associated with things like reusable coffee cups.

“I think it comes back to the point around food hygiene, which is a grey area for many cafes. If a customer has a dirty cup or container, the cafe will have to clean it or potentially be held liable for any issues that arise,” Peyton told SmartCompany.

“That being said, there are indeed a number of cafes promoting the use of reusable cups and even banning single-use cups. There’s a real trend going on.”

Peyton believes a number of things could be done to ensure both consumers and businesses benefit from the use of reusable containers, the first being a drive to educate consumers to ensure their containers are properly cleaned before taking them into a cafe, which Peyton believes would “help the whole system”.

Additionally, a reusable-specific fact sheet from the government or FSANZ would go a long way for providing clarity for confused businesses says Peyton.

“A fact sheet would certainly help. It would clear up the confusion for businesses of being liable when they’re not, and help them understand their responsibilities,” he says.

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