Efforts by socially responsible convenience store operators in recent years to provide sustainable packaging options for their customers have been derailed lately in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, victim to spiraling concerns over public health and food safety. And while retailers remain committed to sustainability goals, given the current climate, the timeline for reaching those goals remains uncertain.
“At the store level, the ongoing coronavirus emergency has shone a bright light on the need to assign food safety and sanitation a No. 1 priority, and that sustainability initiatives—while important—are secondary,” remarked Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS). Indeed, in the weeks following the initial outbreak of the virus in the U.S., leading retail operators paused sustainable initiatives, such as refillable beverage programs, due to cross-contamination concerns for employees and customers.
Single-use containers were born out of communicable disease prevention.
Kwik Trip, Yesway and 7-Eleven were among many c-store chains across the country to halt refillable incentives, which—often tied to membership programs—allow guests to fill up their own hot- or cold-beverage containers. In mid-March, Dallas-based 7-Eleven announced that it was “temporarily discontinuing the use of personal cups for hot and cold dispensed beverages.” But the company added, “We will still honor the discount offered for anyone who brings in a personal cup to participating stores.” Iowa-based Yesway, meanwhile, announced that the use of refillable mugs or cups wouldn’t be allowed “until further notice.”
Calvin said the bans make sense. While in early April he noted that he wasn’t aware of any NYACS members that were running refillable beverage programs, he said, “In the current public health emergency, it would make it even harder for stores to maintain a clean and safe environment for their customers.”
According to Heather Hamilton, barista at Jake’s Convenience store in Staunton, Virginia, customers have been “very understanding” about the shop’s curtailment of its coffee and fountain drink refillable programs. However, the store continues to fill customers’ own beer growlers, Hamilton said, noting, “We’ll clean them before filling, if needed.”
The suspension of refillable beverage programs requires that retailers, of course, revert to single-use cups. Ironically, single-use foodservice packaging emerged more than 100 years ago in the wake of a tuberculosis outbreak, when a Kansas doctor launched a campaign to discourage the sharing of cups and utensils. That campaign led to the creation of single-use cone cups, according to the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), which represents single-use foodservice product purveyors. “Single-use containers were born out of communicable disease prevention,” remarked Natha Dempsey, FPI president. “Just as we see during natural disasters, single-use containers are preferred during epidemics due to fewer touchpoints,” she explained.
Reusable Bag Outcry
The reusable bag—another tool promoted in recent years by leading retailers as a sign of their commitment to sustainability—has also experienced pushback in the months following the coronavirus outbreak, while plastic bags, the scourge of many environmentalists, have reemerged. A number of cities and states have called for a temporary halt of reusable bags by consumers, citing cross-contamination concerns, including jurisdictions that have previously soured on single-use plastic bags. San Francisco, for example, the first city to outlaw plastic bags in 2007, recently moved to restrict consumers from bringing their own bags into stores. Other states, such as Maine and Oregon, have postponed enforcement of recently passed plastic bag bans.
In New York, where a plastic bag ban went into effect on March 1, “there’s been a fair amount of speculation among retailers and customers about whether cloth bags, if not cleaned regularly, could jeopardize sanitation in the store,” Calvin said. New York has delayed enforcement of the ban until after June 15, and neighboring Massachusetts has suspended enforcement of municipal bans on plastic bags. Leading retailers, meanwhile, such as Hy-Vee, had banned reusable bags from its stores earlier this year.
Scot Case, founder of Responsible Sourcing Solutions, said that while c-stores and other retailers have been forced to make decisions based on safety concerns, the moves don’t necessarily mean that their sustainability goals have been thrown off kilter. “It’s not really a moving away from reusables,” remarked Case, who described his firm as one that works to “find ways for businesses to make money through sustainability.” Rather, the stores are “trying to minimize contact between the customer and the employee,” he explained.
Prior to the pandemic, 'there was a ton of interest in sustainability practices among retailers.'
“Sustainability is about people, planet and prosperity,” Case continued. “Suspending a beverage refill program is about protecting people’s health, and that’s the most important thing.” Indeed, he’s optimistic that once the virus has run its course, “there will be a rebalancing of people, planet and prosperity. We’ll pull together, and the reusable movement will take off.”
Prior to the pandemic, “there was a ton of interest in sustainability practices among retailers,” Case noted, including the promotion of reusable containers. “More and more retailers were moving toward reusable products.” Kum & Go, for example, last fall announced plans to open its first urban store in downtown Des Moines, a shop that will have a big focus on sustainability practices, including the emphasis of reusable bags, rather than plastic. If successful, the store could serve as a prototype for other new stores, Kum & Go said. And in March, the Midwestern chain announced that it was overhauling its food packaging by moving toward a host of environmentally friendly and compostable products, including salad bowls, lids and cutlery made with renewable resources. “Supporting sustainability efforts is important throughout our business,” said Jeff Shamburger, vice president of foodservice. “By switching our food packaging, we’re reducing waste and better presenting our premium products.”
Financially Fulfilling Programs
Inroads by retailers in recent years to adopt increasingly sustainable practices have yielded both social and economic benefits. There’s no question that with landfills filling up and recycling programs seeing limited success, all businesses must work more sustainably. Yet for convenience retailers, sustainability efforts like refillable beverage programs can be financially fulfilling as well. “Refillable coffee cup programs are good examples of sustainability initiatives with a profitability side,” remarked Case. “A branded reusable mug with a store’s logo, providing deals on refills, helps build the long-term image of a brand. It also builds customer loyalty.” Moreover, the reusable cups programs help reduce retailer costs, while the cups themselves—if branded—are a form of free advertising, Case continued. “A number of c-stores are doing well with those programs.”
Beyond the c-store channel, other retailers are also finding ways to make reusable containers not only a socially responsible move but also a profitable one. The Good Food Store, an organic grocery in Missoula, Montana, for example, has offered a reusable plastic container program for years. The program, which carries a $5 membership fee, features Eco-Takeout polypropylene containers, which customers can use throughout the store, including in the deli, prepared foods and bulk departments. Customers then return the containers to the store—which cleans and sanitizes them—and swap them out for new containers. More than 1,200 of the containers have been signed out, said Teresa Drew, marketing director. In fact, the program has been so successful that earlier this year the Good Food Store launched a similar mason jar program, which, Drew said, is expected to save the store from using about 20,000 compostable containers a year. “They’re flying off the shelves,” she remarked of the mason jars, noting that the two programs in general have “cut down on our usage of a lot of plastic and to-go containers.”
The Sustainable Choice
Choice Market in April launched a campaign to remove all single-use plastic water bottles from its convenience stores by 2021. Denver, Colorado-based Choice is installing advanced purification FloWater Refill Stations at its two Denver-area c-stores and plans to use them in the three additional locations slated to open by the end of 2020.
“At Choice, there’s nothing more important than the communities we serve,” said Choice Market Founder and CEO Mike Fogarty. “Single-serve plastic water bottles are one of the leading items sold in our industry, and yet most of these bottles end up in the landfill or the ocean.”
The FloWater technology removes up to 99.9% of all impurities, viruses, toxins and heavy metals from tap water. Choice also will offer FloWater’s recyclable aluminum multi-use water bottles, making it easy for customers to grab a drink of water, even if they have forgotten their own refillable container.
In 2019, NACS visited Fogarty, and his team showcased the Choice Market concept in the NACS Ideas 2 Go program. To watch the video, visit www.convenience.org/ideas2go.
Then there’s Loop, an e-commerce business, that offers branded products in reusable containers. After use, the containers are returned to Loop, cleaned, refilled and shipped to more consumers. In some markets, Loop has partnered with the likes of Kroger and Walgreens to spread the concept, and Case sees similar opportunities for convenience retailers down the road.
For c-stores, one of the biggest drawbacks to reusable containers is cross-contamination fear, as the recent coronavirus crisis has demonstrated. FPI’s Dempsey said retailers must weigh the benefits and drawbacks of reusable programs for their customers before making a decision. “Sustainability is a huge issue,” she remarked. “C-store and other foodservice retailers must know their customers. They must know what their customers want. If they’re aligned, retailers will make better decisions.”
Many retail sustainability programs are born out of a need to comply with state or local regulations. Yet, in some cases it can be unclear if the mandates are actually helping or hindering sustainability goals. In California, for example, Berkeley’s Single Use Foodware Litter Reduction Ordinance requires, that as of February 1, all prepared food vendors must charge 25 cents for every disposable beverage cup provided, a move that would presumably drive consumers toward reusable cups. However, the ordinance allows vendors to refuse to fill “unsuitable or unsanitary cups provided by customers.” And a law that went into effect last year in the Golden State that revises existing regulations on the refilling of consumer-owned food and beverage containers, while designed to prevent cross-contamination, could deter retailers from allowing guests to use the containers. Under the measure, food facilities are required to isolate refillable containers from the serving surface or sanitize the serving surface after each fill-up.
New York’s plastic bag ban also has been mired in controversy. “This program was designed to wean consumers off of plastic bags by substituting paper bags as a cheap alternative until they transitioned to reusables,” explained Calvin. “But paper bags were in short supply, so that small hurdle became a big wall for customers.” Some consumers were forced to carry purchases in their arms, he said, transforming “convenience stores into inconvenience stores.”
Indeed, while retailers work to regroup post coronavirus, programs and goals previously established are now being looked at in a new light. Reusable container and bag programs are among the initiatives that c-store operators will continue to study to ensure they balance sustainability goals with customer safety and convenience.
For more resources and reports on how you can more fully embrace sustainable practices in your stores, visit www.convenience.org/sustainability. From an Energy Star toolkit to surveys revealing consumer perceptions about recycling and trash at your stores, NACS can help you meet your sustainability goals.