Disposables versus Reusables in Foodservice Operations

disposables versus reusables

Disposables versus Reusables in Foodservice Operations

Disposables vs Reusables – Determine Which is Best for Your Operation


Tackling the question of whether to use reusable or disposable dinnerware can, at first, be a complex and confusing task.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and a number of considerations need to be made before moving forward with the buildout of your kitchen. 

At the end of the day, the decision of disposables versus reusables will greatly affect the efficiency and financial bottom-line of the entire operation. 

Here are some factors to consider when making your decision.

1. Planning

While it might be obvious to some, it’s worth mentioning that addressing this decision during the design phase of a project is far more cost effective than having to return to a space to make changes or upgrades to equipment and operational practices.  A little planning beforehand will go a long way to avoid challenges in the future.

2. Budget

The first area of planning is, of course, budgetary.  If there isn’t enough money in the short term to buy any dishwashing or waste processing equipment, then the choice to use disposables is made for you, and it’s certainly a serious operational financial consideration.  While there is a range of pricing available, a full system for the washing of reusables — which tends to include a dish machine, dish tables, hoods and fans, pre-rinse units, disposals or scrappers — will typically start around $25,000 and go up from there.  It’s not unusual for a high volume food service facility to have $100,000 or more for warewashing equipment to properly wash reusables.

The issue of suitable budget (and ROI) is slightly more manageable recently than in years prior, mainly due to the increase in dishwashing efficiency.  Energy usage is better than it’s ever been.  Whereas ten years ago, a rack conveyor machine would use 300 gallons of hot water per hour, current models go through as little as 44 gph of hot water (manufacturers vary).  With equipment running on up to a quarter of what they used to, it is quickly becoming more feasible for operations to go forward with reusable strategy.

3. Upfront costs vs long term cost

The decision to start a reusable program obviously requires a considerably larger upfront investment than simply using disposables.  However, disposables aren’t exactly cheap, and the added cost of purchasing new wares after each use often prove prohibitive for many operators.  Recent examples of school programs switching to reusables demonstrates how, over time, the use of reusables can save money over the long term. 

4. Environmental cost

The issue of sustainability and carbon footprint is more important today than it has ever been.  Some mistakenly assume that simply purchasing biodegradable utensils or trays is sufficient enough to be considered “green.”  Ironically, it isn’t uncommon for operations to throw their environmentally-friendly disposables in plastic bags and toss them into the dumpster.  Exploring equipment options that work in tandem with disposables (such as pulpers or shredders) can increase efficiency, and help to reduce the amount of waste in landfills.

5. Labor cost

If the budget is there, the key question remaining to determine disposables versus reusables, is in the area of labor and labor costs.  Simply put, if an operation doesn’t have enough labor to actually wash the dishes, there’s really no point in exploring options beyond that. 

Of course, this consideration varies as widely as there are types of operations.  It’s immensely more doable to have the time to wash dishes in a low volume coffee shop than for a 24-hour high volume cafeteria.  Add to that the health department requirements concerning the amount of sanitary drying space available, and it quickly becomes apparent just how dependent a decision can be on each particular operation’s specific situation.

Putting It All Together…

There is no universal answer to the question of disposables versus reusables.  The answer will always be, “well, it depends.”  There are benefits and drawbacks to each.  Many food service operations use a combination of disposables and reusables to best optimize their space, workforce, and budget. While the designer can identify the variables to be considered, when all is said and done, it’s up to each operator to determine the approach that best meets their needs.