Organizations across the world companies are increasingly going green. Whether responding to pressure from environmental groups or actively embraced by senior management, companies are finding creative ways to purchase, dispose and distribute more sustainably. New products are in the pipeline, including food container companies offering corn- and sugar cane-based products designed to disintegrate in hot water. San Bruno, California, has endorsed these products, and in fact is considering an ordinance requiring restaurant owners to use only reusable, biodegradable and recyclable materials. See the proposed ordinance here and a list of acceptable food containers from the City of San Bruno advising business owners of the ordinance.
But not everyone is pleased, including segments of the food industry. Sysco Foods spokesperson Glen Thompson spoke in front of the San Bruno City Council, according to the minutes of a November 25, 2008, meeting, voicing his concern, as did many others. A San Bruno attorney, Bill Baker, is concerned with liability for injuries, cost, and the fact that most of these products are manufactured in China. This is the same China, Bill Baker points out, where quality control is “almost non-existent and produced consumer horrors.”
Baker argues against using these eco-friendly containers and warns of the impact for those food outlets who either by choice or, forced by ordinance, use them. This is what he had to say about the ordinance and its implications. An important concern is, “The legal liability of businesses that have to serve foods in the weak, often leaking containers that could be hazardous to the health of people ingesting food and drinks from these containers,” Baker said. “We could see a McDonald’s ‘hot coffee’ type of lawsuit if a customer is injured as a result of one of the weaker, biodegradable containers melting down or otherwise failing and spilling a hot drink, or dumping hot food, onto the customer,” he added.
“You could also see small claims-level lawsuits if customers’ clothing or other property is damaged by the containers. A lot of people are in the ‘chain of liability’ for a lawsuit where a person is severely injured as a result of being burned by a very hot liquid spilling on them, the restaurant, the maker of the container, the maker of the materials that went into the container, etc.” Baker said.
Clearly, using disintegrating containers will require restaurant owners to warn customers of the hazards. “I did not see any requirement built into the San Bruno anti-Styrofoam ordinance requiring restaurants to notify customers that the container their food is served in may collapse. However, if I owned a business serving hot food or liquids in these flimsy, bio-degradable containers, I would strategically place a few signs in my business and print up some cards that would be handed out to customers warning them of the possibility that the container they are using could spill or dump its contents onto them.”
Bruno contends that biodegradable food containers cost two-to-five times more than Styrofoam containers. The cost will impact businesses and consumers, resulting in additional costs to the City to enforce the ordinance and to the consumer due to increased food pricing to cover the increased container cost, he believes.