Recommendations handed down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the first clue. “Because CDC is still learning about this virus,” says press officer Jason McDonald, “we recommend the use of disposable food service items, because it minimizes the risk of transmission through food-service items. It may be possible that a person can get covid-19 by touching a surface or object — such as a food service item — that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.”
While CDC recommendations do advise that reusable items are okay as long as they are properly handled and sanitized, restaurateurs lean toward disposable options when faced with a wary clientele, even when they already have excellent sanitization procedures in place. It can be a tough decision on many levels, from the environmental impact of disposables to the increased cost.
“Part of our restaurant’s ethos and identity is that we focus on sustainability,” says Evan Chismark, general manager of Ranch Camp in Stowe, Vt., a restaurant and bicycle shop combo that caters to mountain bikers frequenting the area. “Now we’ve pivoted to items that are prepackaged and plastic, because it’s what the customer demands. But putting all that stuff into the waste stream is super painful.”
Ranch Camp is serving customers at 50 percent capacity on its outdoor patio and in its dining room — and using the same single-use disposable plates, cups and cutlery in both settings. “It hurts in terms of the presentation of the food,” says Chismark, “but it’s what the health inspector and customer wants to see.”
Because some of those disposable items are compostable and because Ranch Camp and the state of Vermont have rigorous composting programs, all single-use items don’t have to end up in landfills — but compostables are not as simple as they seem, says Michael Oshman, founder of the Green Restaurant Association.
“Compostable containers are designed to go into a composting system,” Oshman explains. “If they go into the recycling bin, then they actually contaminate the recycling stream because they don’t belong there. Are compostables better than polystyrene? Sure, but it’s still not functioning the way it’s supposed to if there isn’t a composting system to support it.”
This was exactly what happened to Tina Yake, owner of the Wooden Spoon in Overland Park, Kan., the state’s first certified green restaurant. “I always dreamed of getting to a point where we could be more eco-friendly and more green, so last year we transitioned to compostable takeout containers,” she says. “Then I found out they really only work if the state mandates that everyone sends those containers to a compost facility. I had to backpedal because I didn’t want to use compostables if that wasn’t going to serve my purpose.”
Her solution was to focus on containers with a high percentage of post-consumer content that is BPA-free and recyclable. Because of the increased expense of having to purchase so many containers during the early days of the pandemic, she tacked on a refundable deposit for any containers that customers returned to the restaurant.
However, dine-in customers at the Wooden Spoon find their tables set in much the same way as before, with ceramic plates, metal flatware and reusable glasses, although now they order via a QR code and must make a reservation if they want to sit down to a plate of biscuits and country gravy. Servers disinfect tables and chairs between seatings with a fast-acting eco-friendly sanitizer, and a high-temperature dishwashing machine cleans reusables of any possible contaminants.
“Restaurants already have a pretty stringent hygiene system required by the health department,” says Yake. “Our customers’ bigger concern has been social distancing, not plates.”
Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Va., has shifted completely to single-use serving options for its fresh beignets and chicory coffee since welcoming diners back in late August, says owner David Guas: “Everything is disposable now,” he says. “We used to only have real forks, spoons, bowls, glassware. We’d go to Goodwill and buy all the novelty coffee mugs, which people loved because they were so random. But at this point, we just want to make sure that everyone’s comfortable and keep reassessing.”
Jerusha Klemperer, director of FoodPrint, a project that focuses on the environmental and public health issues connected to industrial food systems, sees a difference between actual hygiene and “hygiene theater,” which she says is aimed at customer comfort levels. “This is such a heartbreaking time on so many levels, so feeling worried about plastic production and usage just falls to the bottom of the list,” she says.
Hygiene may be driving restaurants to focus on disposables as a safe alternative, but Elijah Butterfield, environmental justice fellow at the Center for Environmental Health, warns that even compostables that look eco-friendly can contain PFAS, a class of compounds that provide grease and water resistance — and are also linked to a variety of serious health issues.
“I definitely believe that single-use disposables have no place in restaurants,” Butterfield says. “There’s lots of pressure from the plastics industry to get restaurants and grocery stores to move into disposables. It’s unnecessary.”
Unnecessary as it may be, for those in the food industry, the customer is always right — as are the front-line workers who would rather minimize contact with them. Chap Gage, co-owner of Susan Gage Caterers in Landover, Md., says that safety concerns have risen to the top of the list when talking to potential clients. “Basic food handling really is great for this kind of situation,” says Gage, “because if you’re doing everything right, you shouldn’t have a problem anyway.”
But for now the focus at the catering company is on bamboo-based disposables, boxed meals and reduced interaction that protects the health and safety of both clients and staff. “Disposables offer a way to give everyone peace of mind right now,” Gage says, “but we also don’t want to end up in an environmental disaster on top of a pandemic.”
Klemperer concurs. “Restaurants are following the guidelines as best they can, so we need to be respectful of the parameters and limitations they are dealing with,” she says. “At the same time, it would be great for customers to say, ‘I’d feel totally comfortable eating and drinking from reusable items. I hope we’ll be able to do that again soon.’”
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