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Restaurants can help fix carryout food culture’s plastic problem

As consumers increasingly turn to food delivery and takeout, restaurants need to think of ways to reduce the thousands of pieces of single-use plastic and foam products that package those orders.
As consumers increasingly turn to food delivery and takeout, restaurants need to think of ways to reduce the thousands of pieces of single-use plastic and foam products that package those orders. Associated Press file photo

I run Mexican restaurants in San Diego, the taco capital of the United States. We see our restaurants as community gathering places and believe we have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the world. In recent years, that has included trying to reduce our environmental footprint.

A large part of our business is takeout orders, and that is only increasing as delivery apps like DoorDash and Postmates are changing the way Americans eat. A few years ago, some of our customers expressed concerns about the packaging we — and most restaurants — used for takeout food.

We took those concerns seriously and began learning what we could about our options and about the city of San Diego’s aggressive Climate Action Plan. Here are some of things we learned: California recycles less than 15% of single-use plastic materials. (That figure is unknown for Kansas and Missouri, which regulate recycling far less than the Golden State.)

China, which used to take much of our recycling, has sharply curtailed plastic imports, leaving local municipalities with huge bills for processing these materials. And worst of all, plastic and expanded plastic foam often end up in the ocean, where they degenerate into microplastic, which turns up in fish and drinking water.

After gaining an understanding of these facts, we decided to do everything we could to reduce our carbon footprint by pursuing a composting program, eliminating single-use products — especially plastic ones — whenever possible, and replacing our lighting fixtures with low-energy alternatives.

These changes weren’t cheap, but we received positive feedback from our customers and staff. Even more important, we felt like we were doing the right thing. Ours is the kind of business where we know our regular customers’ names and the names of their children. We even know which dishes they generally order. We feel like we have a responsibility not to degrade the world they live in.

Unfortunately, not many of our competitors have followed suit. They still opt for cheaper options like plastic foam clamshells rather than recycled paper takeout boxes. They say that changing the way they operate would require them to raise prices, cut staff or shutter their restaurants.

Our example proves this isn’t so. But it’s clear that many businesses need a nudge to do what’s best for the world.

The changes we’ve made are not enough to really move the needle if we’re going at it alone. Moreover, we want to compete on a level playing field. Doing what’s best for California, other states and the world shouldn’t have to come at a competitive disadvantage.

Legislation now pending in the state capitol would require all businesses to play an active role in reducing waste. The proposed laws would require that single-use packaging be fully recyclable or compostable by 2030, and would require the state to ensure that 75% of single-use plastic packaging and products are diverted from landfills. The law would level the playing field for businesses like ours, requiring all of us to share the cost of protecting the environment.

The proposed laws would increase demand for high quality, ecologically friendly products — and that would bring its own benefits. As the market for such goods explodes, new and cheaper options will be brought to market, and restaurants will be the beneficiaries. We can also tell our fellow restaurateurs with confidence that their customers will appreciate the changes.

Our original restaurant will celebrate its 50th anniversary this September. We’re incredibly proud of that and grateful to the loyal staff and customers who have made it possible. In order to reach the 100-year mark, we have a responsibility to do what we can to see that San Diego remains a viable place to live, work and eat tacos.

Mikey Knab is director of operations for Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant in San Diego.

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