As exploding COVID-19 numbers close down indoor dining in more than two dozen Colorado counties, restaurants are once again turning to pickup and delivery orders as their lifeline to staying in business.
But with that surge in to-go eating comes yet another — if rarely mentioned — scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic: mounds and mounds of takeaway trash.
“More takeout orders are going to have an impact on our environment,” said Danny Katz, who heads the Colorado Public Interest Research Group. “Nothing we use once to carry our food for a few minutes should pollute our world for hundreds of years.”
He cited plastic and foam containers as chief offenders, given the petroleum-based underpinnings in their manufacture and their stubbornly durable nature.
“Every single polystyrene container we produce right now will take hundreds of years to break down,” Katz said.
But at least one local restaurateur is attempting to chip away at the problem by sending food out in more sustainable packaging.
Somebody People, a Mediterranean-inspired eatery on South Broadway in Denver that opened just over a year ago, uses compostable containers from California-based packaging company World Centric. The boxes are made of bamboo, plant fiber and polylactic acid — a polymer made from organic sources like corn starch, tapioca roots or sugarcane.
But owners Sam and Tricia Maher, Australian natives who have run restaurants all over the world, prefer not to use any takeout packaging at all. Even compostable material has to be properly processed at a certified composting facility to fully biodegrade, they say.
To that end, the couple has been selling “tiffins,” which are sturdy stainless steel containers, to their customers that can be used over and over for leftovers. A customer brings in their used tiffin, which costs around $20, and gets a new one in exchange, filled with their order, at their next visit.
“People are wanting to reduce their waste,” Sam Maher said. “They are longing to treat the Earth a little better.”
It’s admittedly a challenge, the Mahers say. With the rise of delivery culture in the form of companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub, Americans have become accustomed to convenience and the single-use packaging that fuels that lifestyle.
But the couple aims to start small. It’s a matter of forming new habits, Tricia Maher said, in the way that some people have become accustomed to bringing their own mug to their favorite coffee joint or reusable bags to the grocery store.
“Once you get used to it, it mostly comes down to habit,” she said.
Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, acknowledges that takeout packaging is a concern but said the industry has bigger fish to fry right now.
“We’ve long provided resources for a variety of packaging needs, including sustainable options, and we’ve provided education on how to make your restaurant more sustainable, which includes packaging,” she said. “But during the pandemic especially, which is obliterating restaurants, we’re cognizant that these spots are living day-to-day trying to survive.”
Riggs said nearly one in four restaurants is in danger of closing within a month due to the indoor dining closure that went into effect for most Denver area counties Nov. 20.
“When you’re one of the 24% of restaurants that’s in danger of closing within a month thanks to the indoor shutdown — or one of the 60% that may have to close down within three months — you’re doing what you can to make it,” she said.
Meanwhile, though, plastics pollution continues to plague Colorado and the rest of the world.
Last month, the New York Times reported that the United States’ contribution to coastal plastic pollution worldwide is as much as five times greater than previously thought. And a study published in Science in June found that plastic — in the form of partially decomposed microplastics — is carried by wind and water and deposited all over, including in wilderness areas like Rocky Mountain National Park.
And recycling wasn’t keeping up with the problem even before the coronavirus. According to a report released by CoPIRG last week, Colorado’s recycling rate dropped to 15.9% from 17.2%, far below the national average of 35%.
The report found that Coloradans upped the amount of garbage they sent to the dump last year by half a billion pounds over the volume discarded in 2018 — bringing the state’s trash total to 6.1 million tons in 2019. While only a fraction of that volume likely comes from restaurant orders, it’s all part of the problem that the Mahers are trying to fix.
Sam Maher said he hoped independent restaurants throughout the metro area might one day form a type of “club” where tiffins could interchangeably be filled, emptied and cleaned, making it easier for customers to use sustainable packaging at multiple eateries.
“The world is telling us that we need to change and correct our ways,” he said. “If you don’t change today, you’ll never change.”
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