“As a longtime server and operations manager, I know there are definitely solutions to this.”
Every spring, the residents of Woods Hole get their hands dirty. They don’t have much choice. The seaside village’s economy is oriented around summer tourism to Cape Cod, and the garbage that washes up on its shores during the winter isn’t exactly great for business.
“There’s so much trash in the ocean,” observes Beth Colt, the owner of three restaurants in Woods Hole. “And it’s mostly plastics that don’t break down.”
The town’s cleanups benefit the whole community, so local restaurants do their best to encourage them. Colt and her colleagues offer vouchers to people who participate. But something about this approach has always troubled her. Growing up on the coastline of Massachusetts, Colt revered the ocean and cared about protecting it. Tackling trash after it had already washed up on shore felt like it was too little, too late.
“Restaurants are notoriously high-waste environments,” she admits. According to a 2015 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency, food and the disposable packaging it comes in accounts for almost 45% of the materials landfilled each year. In addition to all the single-use takeout containers, “there’s a lot of paper products involved in just keeping a restaurant clean,” Colt says. “Food waste, scraps from meals, and even fryer oil.” Troubled by the wasteful aspects of her business, Colt wondered if she could prevent some of the waste before it even started.
It takes a lot of resources to make that kind of change. Owning and operating a restaurant is hard enough as it is, with high-stress work environments often yielding razor-thin margins. Aside from some feel-good green PR, are there any real, tangible incentives for restaurant owners like Colt to invest the necessary time and energy?
According to Clean Water Action, there are. In 2015, the environmental advocacy group launched the ReThink Disposables program to help restaurants reduce their reliance on single-use packaging. The program works with restaurant owners to assess how and when they can eliminate waste in their day-to-day operations and argues that doing so isn’t just good for the environment; it saves restaurants money. Through its work with 166 businesses, located mostly in California, the program says it has prevented nearly 200,000 pounds of disposable items from entering the waste stream annually, saving businesses over half a million dollars per year collectively.
ReThink Disposables has been most effective in its work eliminating disposables used in sitdown meals at restaurants. For Colt—who has not utilized the program, but came to its logic of her own accord—that was easy to do in her more traditional establishment, Quicks Hole Tavern, which relies primarily on reusable dishes and cutlery anyway. (Things like straws now only get handed out upon request, instead of coming automatically with a drink.) But this still does not address the 30% of sales that come from takeout orders.
In to-go scenarios, efforts to be eco-friendly often add costs instead of removing them. Switching takeout packaging from plastic to compostable can increase the cost of an item up to 10 times, says Colt. Add to that the cost of having a hauler from the composting facility make daily pick-ups, “because you can’t have rotting garbage sitting on the curb in the summertime.”
“None of this is cheap,” Colt reflected in a blog post shortly after her decision to reduce her restaurant’s waste. “But we feel we are doing what is right, and we hope our customers agree.”
Colt tries to offset some of these costs by charging an extra 50 cents for takeout orders.
“Other restaurant owners think I’m crazy,” she says, citing an incident at a recent Massachusetts Restaurant Association meet-up where she mentioned the fee to her peers. In an industry where it is standard to hide the cost of packaging from patrons, “they wonder why I don’t just build the prices into my menu.”
Yet she remains adamant.
“Why should those sit-down customers subsidize those who are requiring something of extra value?” she insists. Their meals are not only “zero waste,” but they also save her business an expense. “At least, that’s how I rationalize it.”
Colt’s level of awareness is far from the norm. In many Massachusetts restaurants, the line between takeout and sit-down is blurred—disposable foodware is given in both scenarios. Single-use has permeated the dining experience, making it harder and harder to get a meal without it.
The dominance of disposables is counterintuitive to some.
“If you think of your traditional, four-wall, sit-down restaurant, it is in the operator’s best interest to have reusable food ware,” says Steve Clark, vice president of government affairs at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. He draws a strong distinction between those scenarios and fast-food operations, where customers take their drinks and food with them. For dine-in meals, he says, “most restaurants are not going to have disposables, as it doesn’t make financial sense to have the recurring expense.” Furthermore, unless it’s a temporary venue, “most places that serve alcohol are not going to have single-use cups in it.”
However, when I posted a survey to the Facebook group Zero Waste Massachusetts, a group of more than 3,000 residents concerned about plastic pollution in the state, in order to gauge consumers’ experience with disposables, a very different picture emerged. “This happens everywhere!” wrote one woman from Ipswich about the prevalence of plastic in sitdown meals.
A Boston-area woman complained that her local bakery rejected her request for reusables, telling her they “were not licensed for sit down meals,” and that they were required by law to make everything “to go”—“even though they have tables and all.” Others in the group pointed out that many Massachusetts restaurants, particularly casual spots, like clam shacks, rely exclusively on disposables, regardless of whether patrons are dining in or taking out.
But the biggest culprits mentioned by group members were the countless sit-down bars and restaurants who serve drinks in disposable plastic. One woman described being at a music venue and being told that, due to “security risk,” bartenders were doubling up on disposable containers, pouring beer from disposable aluminum cans into plastic cups before handing it to her.
“I’ve now just stopped getting drinks anywhere where that is policy,” she said.
According to Khirsti Smyth Barry, a former food-industry employee in Massachusetts who now works with the Center for EcoTechnology, the decision to use or not to use reusable food ware is, for many restaurants, a bit complicated.
“Small businesses have to be practical and are often dealing with tens, hundreds, or in the case of large venues, thousands of often drunk, not super careful people who break things regularly, high labor costs relative to other expenses, staff that works long shifts, and health code standards,” she explains.
One bartender at a popular venue in Cambridge’s Central Square, when asked about her establishment’s policy of serving drinks in disposables, said: “The reality of the situation is that we’re located across the street from two frat houses. We care about the environment, and will give glassware to those who ask for it, but when the kids come in here, we sometimes switch to plastic. [W]hen your parents pay your rent, you don’t always know how to take care of things.”
“As a longtime server and operations manager, I know there are definitely solutions to this,” Barry says. “It’s something we are working towards. … I just want to voice a little compassion for the realities and challenges of the service industry.”
Miriam Gordon, head of the Indisposable Communities program at the nonprofit UPSTREAM, also encourages an understanding of the challenges businesses face. Gordon has been lobbying against the use of disposable food ware for the last 15 years. Working with California’s state and local governments, she has dedicated a great deal of resources to locating the source of our dependence on them. Yet, again and again, she and her colleagues have come up against an unexpected impediment.
Fear of cross-contamination and the lawsuits they spark pervades the food industry at all levels. Reflecting this, food safety regulations have grown very strict, demanding clean, sterile containers. While the emphasis on hygiene has been a positive development—and has drastically reduced the number of foodborne illnesses—it has had some unintended consequences.
Single-use articles, many of which are guaranteed sterile, check a lot of boxes for those looking to minimize risk of contamination. Combined with their ease of use, disposables have slowly but surely become a much more attractive option.
The irony—that pollution is consistently enabled by a code of regulations otherwise designed to prevent threats to public health—is not lost on Gordon.
“From my reading, it’s clear that the code wasn’t trying to eliminate reusables,” she says. “We just needed more clarity.” To this end, she has been involved in several essential pieces of legislation designed to target this fundamental catch-22, at least for the state of California.
In January 2019, Gordon’s colleagues at UPSTREAM helped pass an ordinance in the city of Berkeley. Effective this July, restaurants will no longer be permitted to offer single-use cups, utensils, plates, or any kind of food service ware for dining on site, “because it just doesn’t make any sense to sit down at a restaurant and be served with disposables.”
Even McDonald’s and other fast-food chains, whose empires were built on the premise of disposable packaging, will be affected by the new mandate.
“It’s actually really quite groundbreaking when you think about it,” she says. “The policies that we’ve enacted turn that throwaway business model on its head.”
More recently, Gordon spurred a bill passed last July that clarifies that refilling is in fact permitted in California. It also loosens restrictions on temporary events that previously prohibited reusable containers.
For Massachusetts, however, the clash between government agencies is ongoing. The Department of Public Health wants to prevent the spread of dangerous germs (inadvertently encouraging single-use), while the Department of Environmental Protection is dedicated to reducing waste. In 2010, the DEP’s “Solid Waste Master Plan” listed a goal of decreasing waste to landfill in the state 30% by 2020, though it has not reached half that goal.
When I asked the DPH about the seemingly contradictory goals between state agencies, department Director Jana Ferguson didn’t provide much clarity, voicing commitment to current codes on single-use and stating that the two agencies “work together to support recycling and food waste diversion to support the Commonwealth’s waste management goals.”
Kirstie Pecci, a Massachusetts-based lawyer who leads the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation, hopes the Bay State will look to what places like California are doing in reevaluating regulations that discourage reuse.
“There’s a whole host of regulatory reform that we’re going to need to make sure we’re not wasting food at every level and finding ways to set up reusable packaging systems,” Pecci says. She argues that the switch to disposables over the last few decades has ultimately privileged a set of short-term crises, like germs, over long-term ones, like plastic pollution.
“I think what we’ve done is try and take action on the immediate bad, but in doing so, we’ve created a long-term, greater bad,” Pecci explains. “We need to be realistic about the fact that all these plastics, and production of plastics, are really toxic and terrible for our health and climate. So we need to do what it takes to phase them out.”
From a restaurant perspective, a regulatory fabric could help restaurant owners like Beth Colt, who are trying to do the right thing, in spite of the obstacles.
“I like it when there is regulatory pushback because it levels the playing field,” Colt says. “I think it’s the right thing to do, because I’m out there by myself doing it and it means that my costs are higher than the guy right down the street. And that makes it hard.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of a series on consumerism and waste in Mass by Karine Vann. You can support reporting like this at givetobinj.org and subscribe to our newsletter and read BINJ features at binjonline.org.
Karine Vann is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge writing about the intersection of consumerism and the environment. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com, The Counter, Civil Eats and more. She's the former editor of The Armenian Weekly newspaper in Watertown.