It’s a long way from Louisiana to the North Pacific Ocean, but that New Orleanians share responsibility for some 80,000 tons of plastic trash floating in what’s being called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not lost on a growing number of local restaurateurs striving to reduce the global flow of non-biodegradable junk.
Not only are enormous marine junkyards—the notorious North Pacific dump is only one of them—a sad commentary on a consumer society run amok, they are increasingly suspect as a hazard to human health.
The question is when or whether a city—which for decades celebrated the success of Mardi Gras by the tonnage of trash it generated—will wake up and begin to support local efforts to create a more sustainable global waste stream.
For now, the restaurateurs are taking the initiative. In place of single-use items like plastic straws and Styrofoam to-go boxes, they are switching to eco-friendly alternatives. They are composting table scraps and using the fresh soil to grow some of the vegetables they serve. They are channeling their accumulated grease and oils into the manufacture of bio-fuels. Oyster shells are being used in coastal restoration projects.
Joining the fight for a more sustainable waste stream is not cost-free. Biodegradable to-go containers can run to 30 cents apiece, more than three or four times as much as the foam or plastic kind. The same goes for biodegradable cutlery.
At Café Carmo in the Warehouse District, owners Dana and Christina Honn have not used any plastic to-go items since they opened in 2010. Their straws are made from a cornstalk byproduct, and to-go cups are made from recycled material or from a byproduct of corn grown in the U.S. Even the stirrers are non-plastic: they’re made of bamboo.
At Pêche, a few blocks away, Chef Ryan Prewitt said the eco-friendly straws he offers cost two to three times as much as the plastic kind. “The economics are improving,” Prewitt notes. “The straws started out at 4 cents apiece, and now they are down to 2.5 cents apiece, whereas our plastic straws were about a penny each.” Pêche uses BioPlusEarth to-go boxes, made from 100 percent recycled paper, and does not offer any to-go cutlery. “I moved here from California, and we recycled everything,” Prewitt said. “And then I moved here, and we recycled nothing. It’s always cheaper to do it the other way, but for the amount of to-go stuff we go through, it’s not impactful on our bottom line.”
At Seed on Prytania Street restaurant owner Edgar Cooper said he is currently paying five times more for biodegradable to-go boxes than he would for plastic or foam ones, but he remains committed to his policy and optimistic about the economics. “Cost is a little bit of a concern, but if we don’t do it then it is a contradiction,” he said, alluding to Seed’s image as a place that combines healthy food and environmental awareness. “The more environmentally friendly that products have become, the more suppliers are making them. So hopefully the prices will come down,” Cooper said.
To defray the cost increase, many restaurant managers have changed policies regarding single-use items. Café Carmo provides straws only upon request. The same goes at Pêche. “I have had a long hatred of straws,” Prewitt joked. “A straw is this thing that most people don’t even use. It always drove me nuts that the default behavior was to put a straw in a drink. It seems to be almost an unconscious action. Years ago, we changed our philosophy to only include straws if people asked for it.”
At Casa Borrega on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, owner Linda Stone has found savings by simply eliminating some single-use options. Her napkins are cloth, for example, not paper, both because cloth napkins are reusable and because the manufacture of paper napkins pollutes large volumes of water.*
Plastic straws are not an option at Borrega. Instead, drawing on insights she gained in partnership with Tulane students last year, Stone stocks stainless steel straws and charges patrons a breakeven price of $2 apiece. They’re a hit. “People have been coming in to the restaurant specifically to buy them, even 10 or 20 of them at a time,” she said. “People have told our staff it makes them feel good to come here because they feel like they are supporting a cause.”
Across the parish line, Hippie Kitchen on Jefferson Highway sees part of its mission as educating patrons about environmental sustainability. Owner Harveen Khera recoups some of the cost by charging 25 cents for each biodegradable to-go cup. “Lagniappe isn’t just coming in and getting something for free,” Khera said.
The move by restaurants toward a more sustainable waste stream doesn’t stop with avoiding single-use plastics. Several of the eateries mentioned above pay Schmelly’s Dirt Farm or another local firm, the Composting Network, to pick up compostable food scraps and turn them into soil. Casa Borrega takes back some of that soil and uses it to grow vegetables in the restaurant’s garden. Hippie Kitchen does its own composting and grows produce on site.
Composting food scraps is catching on. Schmelly’s services more than 30 cafés and restaurants in the New Orleans area, owner Nicola Krebil said. (In New York City, recycling food scraps from restaurants and other institutional kitchens is now required by law.)
Local eateries, hotels and grocers must also contract with private recyclers to take glass and plastic—Borrega, for example, with Phoenix Recycling—but that’s only because the city Sanitation Department doesn’t service big trash producers.
Another front in the move toward a more environmentally sustainable restaurant industry has been opened by services that pay biofuel manufacturers to collect their grease and used cooking oils. And Pêche pays the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana to pick up the restaurant’s discarded oyster shells, diverting them from landfills to oyster-reef construction projects.
The restaurateurs who incorporate sustainability stress the overall connection between a healthy environment and serving healthy food. Prewitt put it this way: “For us at Pêche, it comes back to the entire philosophy of the restaurant—from the fish that we buy, the shrimp, the recycling we do out back, it’s all part of us trying to be better stewards of the environment. We’re better able to interact with our surrounding community when we abide by that. We’re constantly trying to get better.”
Hippie Kitchen sees not just planetary pollution but customer health tied up in its packaging policy. Styrofoam containers excrete chemicals that can get into the customer’s food, Khera said. Worse yet, “when they put Styrofoam in a microwave, they’re really almost giving themselves a chemical bomb,“ she added.
For the restaurant’s garden manager and farm liaison Zach Jaffe, it’s all about local sourcing. “By purchasing locally, that’s really our biggest impact in reducing waste, limiting how far food has to travel. People really like to focus on straws these days, but how much impact is that really having. The way we source our food reduces waste.”
Of course, even the most environmentally pristine restaurant is itself not sustainable if customers don’t show up and support the effort.
“I feel like we are in a little bit of a waiting game for the New Orleans market to catch up in terms of a public that actually values this,” said Café Carmo’s Dana Honn, speaking of the restaurant’s moves toward eco-friendly packaging and cutlery. “When we first started we had an executive down the street who would eat here, and he told us: ‘I really don’t care about this; you can just give me the plastic containers.’ The sense I got from him was that he thought I was not making a good business decision. In the long run, though, there is a percentage of our audience that does care that we use these containers and that we recycle and compost. And then there are the other folks that will have to have some sort of epiphany.”
For Honn, the best way to underscore the importance of environmental sustainability is to make it an integral part of the dining experience. “Being preachy about what you’re doing never sells plates. It can come off as trying to be trendy,” he said. “So, we include sustainability as the norm in how we present the narrative of the food that we make. At the heart of what we’re doing is saying that there are a lot of problems in the world, and one of the things we can address is to fix our food system.”
The sheer amount of information on alternatives to restaurant plastics can be overwhelming. “There are so many options out there, all at various price levels,” said Mary Sharp, general manager of Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar. “Do you get the paper cup with the sleeve? Do you get the one with the most protection that you don’t need the sleeve? And then what about the caps? It’s just a lot to decide. It would be nice if I had a consultant that could look at our menu and what we sell and tell us if there is a certain box that would cater to those three items.”
Several of the managers I spoke with said their effort would be enabled if city or parish government began offering incentives. Said Honn: “We generate so little trash. If we fill a full garbage bag in a day, then that’s a lot for us. It ticks me off that I’m paying a full amount for that trash service. You’d think that the city, given the size of the trash contracts, would have a goal of producing less waste.”
Seed’s owner shares that view. “Europe is passing laws against plastic. In Louisiana we’re a little further behind than the rest of the country, but if the city were to give incentives, it would help,” Cooper said. “It would be better if they passed laws that just banned some of these plastics.”
Stone, at Casa Borrega, also looks to government: “If there could just be legislation on the use of plastics, or a bottle bill to encourage reuse of bottles, that would all help,” she said. “Or, maybe give us a break on taxes. We save a lot of water at our restaurant; we use Energy Star appliances. If we’re saving resources, why not have legislation that rewards that?”
Khera, at Hippie Kitchen, believes that even a supportive nod from Jefferson Parish authorities could go a long way: “Could there be a payroll tax incentive for restaurants reducing waste? Could they (politicians) even just let people know what we’re doing? In San Francisco, if your kitchen is clean you get a sign on your front door letting people know that this is a clean kitchen and environmentally friendly.”
Help may be coming. With concern about plastic pollution spreading worldwide, City Councilmember Kristin Palmer said she’s interested in putting together a working group of progressive restaurateurs to advise her and others in city government on how to support their initiatives with marketing and legislation.
“When you have these really smart businesses like Café Carmo, a business which is also paying its employees a living wage, and which sources its ingredients locally, there is more of a relationship between the people and what they are eating,” Palmer said. “It’s the private sector that becomes the leaders in this conversation. It’s smart business to have employees that are healthy and happy.”
Palmer emphasized the connection between sustainability and tourism. “We now have 13 to 17 million tourists, and we have a social responsibility to the people that visit us. Many of them are people who helped to rebuild our city after Katrina. The reality is that we just have not done tourism well. We have made neighborhoods suffer, and we’ve made our residents suffer by not having access to fair wages and healthcare. But we can flip the script if we can show that sustainability is profitable. If you look at the trends in tourism, it’s millennials who are the driving force. First, they want authenticity. The second thing that they want is sustainability.
“The reality is if we market our city this way, then it gives the ability to reward the businesses who are sustainable, who might not have the marketing money themselves to do that. What we have to do now is to really listen to the industry to hear what they need.”
Jane Patton of No Waste Nola, a local advocacy group dedicated to making the connection between waste reduction and economic development, sees a lot of opportunities. “One thing the city could do is to have the CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) have a messaging campaign that says that New Orleans is a city that is sustainable,” Patton said. “That would bolster the expectation of tourists and locals that restaurants would no longer have plastics as the norm. There could also be a partnership between the city and the restaurant association to have a how-to guide for recommendations if a restaurant wants to become more sustainable.”
The floating trash heap in the Pacific—recently estimated to be three times the size of France—has joined climate change and vanishing species as the emblem of a globe poisoned by the indiscriminate use of petrochemicals, the core feedstock in plastics of many kinds. The hazard goes beyond aesthetics as scientists discover that plastic junk is not only killing marine wildlife, it is breaking down into tiny particles—secondary microplastics or microfibers—that enter the food chain and embed suspected carcinogens in human tissue.
The planet has no choice but to reverse course. The future of a low-lying region is only more immediately at stake.
Dana Honn recently spoke to a group of elected officials on the topic of waste reduction. “My message was, what’s the endgame of having no incentives for sustainable businesses—it’s a heap of trash and a bunch of people who don’t give a darn about New Orleans.”
Kevin Fitzwilliam is a fellow with Environmental Entrepreneurs, a branch of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He can be contacted at email@example.com. This evening, he will be helping to facilitate a discussion on making New Orleans a sustainable city. The free event, under the aegis of POCACITO (Post Carbon Cities of Tomorrow), is from 5 to 8 pm Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Global Green Climate Action Center, 5400 Douglas Drive, in the Ninth Ward. Here is the link to register.
*Correction: An earlier edition of this column stated incorrectly that Stone became aware of the volumes of water used in manufacture of paper napkins through research in partnership with Tulane students. In fact, she came to this insight on her own.
The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.