Jul 28, 2014
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Restaurant Owners Weigh In On Food Packaging Ban

The food packaging ordinance has banned polystyrene, but are restaurant owners happy with the green alternatives?

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San Bruno's food packaging ordinance bans restaurants from using polystyrene (#6 plastics and Styrofoam) because of its potential environmental and health related problems. It went into full effect on April 1. So how is the ban affecting the city's restaurant owners?

Carrot's Coffee & Tea

For Sarah Redman, owner of  Carrot's Coffee & Tea, complying with the ordinance was easy. "It was a no-brainer for me because I personally buy recycled products," she said. In fact, she did not know about the ordinance until a city worker came to her store to provide information about it but she was already using compliant products.

From what she has observed from purchasing food ware, "a lot of companies are going out of their way to make the pricing attractive for eco-products," she said. "It may be a couple dollars different."

She is even able to get free shipping on her compostable coffee cups by having the logo of her coffee roaster printed on them.

Redman feels that the polystyrene ban is beneficial for the environment and that any additional costs incurred by buying green packaging should be considered a standard "cost of doing business." This is a view she said she wishes more business owners would adopt. She would like to see a plastic bag ban pass next and already uses paper bags only at her café. On a personal level, she even takes it one step further and carries her own reusable shopping bags.

Artichoke Joe's Casino

Artichoke Joe's Casino president and CEO Dennis Sammut and operations manager Jim Vonasek have their hands full with a 24-hour kitchen serving customers at the card tables, in the dining room and in the bar area. 

They had been using polystyrene products after previously switching from washing reusable dishes, and they were initially against the ordinance.

"Just because the city demands something and says you've got to do it, when you go to the marketplace and you tried to find, the 'green' type product, it may not be on the market right then," Sammut said. "We caved in to the city. Basically, they wanted this for the community. They felt it was a good thing. So we cooperated with the City Council."

Sammut agreed there was some environmental benefit to the ban but that Styrofoam is still being used in many other industries, such as those that do product packaging. Overall, he said, he felt that restaurants have been targeted unfairly. He also said he felt that state legislation would have been better.

"Once the state says it, and once ten thousand restaurants are going to be buying it, there's a market for it," he said. "The price comes down, and everybody's a happy camper. Then you have no issues with us whatsoever."

Vonasek, who manages the casino's food and beverage service, said, "There's still not an acceptable lid for any hot items, whether it be a soup bowl or coffee cup. Lids still aren't anything but level 6 (plastic)."

The council revisited the ban issue to consider labeling more products  recyclable since some compliant items such as hot lids and straws were hard for restaurants to find.

Chili's offers biodegradable straws but were not available for comment.

Vonasek also raised quality concerns about the green utensils. "We've had a lot of trouble with the plastic utensils, especially the fork," he said. "If it's made of corn or non-polystyrene products, it's very difficult to use…. It breaks or it bends."

Vonasek and Sammut said they also had issues finding a plate that could handle Chinese food coming out of a wok "without burning a hole in it."

"But we've been able to find something that works fairly well," Sammut said. "We figure we are pretty much 100 percent compliant right now."

Araujo's La Taqueria

Miguel Araujo Sr., owner of Araujo's La Taqueria, also weighed in on the ban. He admits they are not fully compliant with the ban. They are still using large Styrofoam cups for their to-go orders of menudo, which is boiling hot.

He has not found a comparable green product that can handle the heat and not burn a hole in their pocketbook either.

"A regular case of 100 containers is $7.99, for example, and the new containers are almost $20," he said.

Araujo agrees the community needs to take action for environmental sustainability, but said, "I think the action has to be global, not only pointing the finger at the little guys, like us, the little restaurants."

"If you're going to make us become green in a restaurant, you've got to be green throughout the rest of the city," he said.

He suggested that the city buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. In this arena, Araujo is walking the talk by using two Toyota Prius hybrids to make their deliveries.

Don Pico's

Isaac Mejia, owner of Don Pico's, who has been involved with the ban issue for years, suggested that the city offer classes for businesses to learn how to implement environmental measures while maintaining profitability and how to market their green achievements to customers. He also thought the city should help with discounts for purchasing more expensive green products or for bulk buying to reduce costs.

Ban Compliance and Resources

Accoding to Jim Shannon, an analyst for the city's public works department who manages the sustainable food packaging program, the city is only investigating restaurant compliance when they get calls of complaints. So far, he said, no fines have been issued.

Shannon said that City Council and staff have acknowledged the cost increase of green food ware, but he added that the neighboring cities of South San Francisco, Millbrae and Pacifica all have similar programs.

He said there is no unfair competition in the area if restaurants have to pass the cost increase along to their customers.

The city has provided a website where you can get more info on the ban, along with a resource list of where to buy the green products.

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