Most Charleston-area restaurants that offered “eco-friendly” takeout packaging before the pandemic have continued to invest in the more expensive containers.
But many restaurant owners aren’t aware that, unless taken to a commercial composting facility, those corn straws and bamboo boxes do little to save the Earth.
That’s because at-home composting units can’t properly dispose of the containers, and landfills often lack the oxygen needed for those cartons and utensils to properly decompose. Recycling those items will do no good and might even contaminate other reusable materials.
Jana Davis of the Charleston Surfrider Foundation says the restaurant industry’s groupthink contributes to “greenwashing,” or fostering the false impression that a company is going out of its way to help protect the environment.
While new options for biodegradable and compostable food packaging have hit the market since the start of the pandemic, which elevated the importance of takeout, those might not be the best options.
“A lot of restaurants felt like they were doing the right thing by going toward bioplastics,” Davis said. “People think it will just turn back into its original form, and that’s not what happens.”
Those items will eventually break down. But if they aren’t sent to a composting facility, they won’t automatically turn into a soil-enriching substance — which is the point of composting in the first place.
The Surfrider Foundation’s ocean-friendly restaurants program recently released a document rich with facts aimed at helping restaurants explore sustainable options. Among tips are only offering single-use utensils or straws upon request and looking for paper, aluminum or reusable takeout alternatives.
GO Box, for example, is a service in Portland, Ore., that provides restaurants with reusable to-go food containers that can be filled for customers, dropped off at collection boxes, sanitized and then redistributed around the city. A company of this nature doesn’t exist in Charleston, and during COVID-19, GO Box faced germ-spreading speculation.
Operations were paused for a few months due to safety concerns before health experts deemed reusables non-contributors to COVID-19’s proliferation. Local cafes, like The Daily, still aren’t allowing patrons to bring their own refillable mugs out of an abundance of caution.
“With COVID, I think sustainability in general has taken a backseat to safety,” said Megan Deschaine, Doar Bros. bar manager and representative for the Charleston chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild and Strawless Charleston. “Delivering food entirely to go can be problematic if we’re trying to address things like waste, but in the wake of the global pandemic, it was absolutely necessary.”
Recyclable plastic is another alternative that can be easily tossed in the blue bin for disposal, but Davis said those takeout containers come with other detriments.
“So many have endocrine disrupters and chemicals that interfere with the way our hormones work,” Davis said. “Those can leak out onto your food.”
Studies have found some of those chemicals, which can be further triggered when heating up your leftovers in the microwave, are linked to metabolic disorders and reduced fertility, according to Harvard Health.
Health concerns aside, the United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that only about 32 percent of Americans actually even recycle.
At Charleston County’s Bees Ferry Composting Facility, the only one in the area, around 75,000 tons of waste annually is diverted from the landfill. Compost Now and Smart Recycling are among companies that collect compost from businesses like restaurants and then deliver them to the facility.
Megan McGill of Smart Recycling said of the company’s 45 customers in Charleston, half are restaurants or cafes. The service that provides receptacles and coordinates pickup averages about $200 per month, McGill said.
Triangle Char & Bar in West Ashley uses Compost Now, manager Jennifer Rehrig said. Part of the restaurant’s training program includes learning what can and cannot be composted.
All of Triangle’s takeout containers and utensils are compostable, but the restaurant doesn’t currently offer receptacles for patrons, just staff.
“We would have to go about it in a certain way to allow guests to bring back their trash, but we’d have to keep it sanitary in the dining room,” she said. “It’s something to think about.”
When those containers are actually composted properly, it can make a difference, offered Jesse Blum of the Green Heart Community Garden Project.
And even if they aren’t, they’re still superior options to Styrofoam or plastic — at least one encouragement to restaurants who have ditched the cheaper alternatives.
“Even if compostables end up in a landfill, it’s much better than using nonbiodegradable products because those just aren’t going to decompose ever,” Blum said.
For Joel Lucas, the owner of Edison James Island, composting isn’t an option currently, space- or money-wise.
“There’s a difference between paying a little more to do the right thing and it being almost out of reach,” Lucas said. “That’s the issue when you’re looking at something three times the amount. It can cost doors being open in the long run.”
He’s still managed to pay the fees for compostable containers, which were in short supply this past year as the industry scrambled to meet escalated to-go demands.
Because of those supply-chain concerns and devastating revenue losses that came with the COVID-19 shutdown, Charleston County in March 2020 reversed a single-use plastics ban that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
That allowed restaurants to switch back to cheaper and slightly easier to find Styrofoam and plastic bags if they so wished.
Some did, according to Moe’s Crosstown owner Mike Tronoski.
“I don’t blame them,” Tronoski said. “It was tough financially for everyone.”
He said getting rid of the mass-produced plastic bags stamped with a red “Thank You” and trading them in for paper bags has driven up his costs threefold.
A small plastic salad container runs 9 cents, for instance, but the same-sized compostable corn starch-based container costs 33 cents.
Jack of Cups Saloon owner Lesley Carroll said paying that fee is a given for the Folly Beach restaurant that aims to save its sea turtle neighbors, but wasn’t aware of some of the other conservation-minded options she could be utilizing.
“Education is certainly a key component,” said Davis.
An updated copy of the ocean-friendly restaurant program’s guidelines — with criteria from composting to energy efficiency — was released in mid-April.