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Ban on foam containers: Some California North Coast businesses embrace the limits, some ignore them

Screamin Mimi’s owner Maraline Mazzetti Olson used to toss a dozen bags of garbage out before she started using compostable and recyclable products.

Now the Sebastopol ice cream shop barely has one bag of trash at the end of the day.

Olson was ahead of her time when 15 years ago she switched to more environmentally friendly products. She did it because she wanted to, not because she was told to.

Today, more businesses are turning to go-to containers and straws that are biodegradable because they have to.

In November 2022, California voters will decide if there should be a statewide mandate that utensils be reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and that there be a ban on single-use plastic packaging and containers.

Polystyrene is a hard plastic that does not decompose. If it breaks apart, it can wind up in soil, waterways and ingested by wildlife. (Styrofoam is a trademark brand of expanded polystyrene foam.)

“Polystyrene and other non-recyclable plastics are a serious and readily preventable source of marine debris pollution. Many of these products are both lightweight and aerodynamic, so they are easily blown into gutters and storm drains even when ‘properly’ disposed of. They are also very brittle, so when littered they quickly break into smaller and smaller pieces making cleanup impossible,” according to Californians Against Waste.

The reality is polystyrene works extremely well and is much cheaper than alternative products. This could be why the desire to eliminate this plastic has not been universally embraced throughout the North Bay.

Californians Against Waste does not list either Napa or Solano county or any of their cities as having a ban. Yountville is the exception, having adopted a ban in 1989.

The nonprofit reports the tiny Marin County city of Fairfax embraced the ban of containers made of polystyrene in 1993. The county and other cities have since come on board.

By this fall every municipality in Sonoma County, as well as unincorporated areas, should have rules in place to eliminate polystyrene to-go food containers used by restaurants and ones sold at grocery stores. This effort is being led by Zero Waste Sonoma, a government entity for the county and nine jurisdictions within it.

What restaurants are saying

The Lunchette in Petaluma isn’t just educating customers about why it uses compostable containers for everything, the restaurant is also bringing the issue to the forefront with vendors.

This includes insisting vendors pack goods using compostable “peanuts” that dissolve immediately when they come in contact with water. This compares to the polystyrene ones which remain intact forever. Cardboard strips or other paper products are also options the restaurant suggests for packaging.

“When we order anything from vendors such as glass bottles for beverages and what not we work with them to stop using polystyrene,” explained restaurant owner Naomi Crawford. “We are moving our vendors away from polystyrene. The county can’t make outside vendors do so, so we are.”

The Lunchette has been using compostables since opening in April 2017.

“Polystyrene is the cheapest material to purchase, so when we did our business plan, we worked (compostables) into our pricing,” Crawford said. “But in the beginning we were not able to get all the compostable material we needed, but now we are able to use all compostables.”

A common theme among businesses is needing to be patient as the creators of these sustainable products keep improving upon them.

“We use reusable containers for our to-go products while we search for compostable items that are durable, that can withstand the heat from our pasta,” explained Amy Svendberg, managing partner of Poggio Trattoria in Sausalito.

She admitted one iteration of compostable to-go containers worked too well. When hot sauce was put in it, it started disintegrating before the food arrived at someone’s home, which could create a mess in vehicles.

“We are in a world of discovery right now with those products. We are not quite there with compostables that can hold up to our saucier dishes,” Svendberg said.

The restaurant provides reusable plastic containers like the ones sold in grocery stores. Soups are put in paper cups that have a recyclable lid. The goal at Poggio Trattoria is to be 100 percent compostable, but to do so will mean taking incremental steps.

Il Fornaio, which has 19 restaurants including in Corte Madera, also made a gradual transition to environmentally friendly containers. As each jurisdiction created a policy, the company would abide by it. Now eco-friendly products are at all of its locations.

“We are using either compostable or reusables to meet the county guidelines,” Shantae Riley, purchasing and menu coordinator for the company, said.

Utensils are compostable, while to-go containers and lids are recyclable. Everything comes in a paper bag, which also can be composted. Soft containers are plastic, but meet requirements to be reusable because the high quality of plastic is dishwasher and microwave safe, Riley said.

While Screamin Mimi’s has never used Styrofoam, Mazzetti Olson knows it’s the cheapest product, then clear plastic, then compostables. The clear plastic is what she was using before going to compostables. It was only two years ago the 26-year-old ice cream company found a non-plastic straw that works for milkshakes.

“Initially we absorbed the cost (of the transition). It was significant, but it meant that much to me,” Mazzetti Olson said. “We are talking about a dish of ice cream that instead of a penny for the cup it was now 3 cents.” She acknowledges per customer that wasn’t not much, but when they come by the boxload the invoice was noticeable.

Mazzetti Olson surmises the shop is 99% compostable. The goal is to be 100%. For now, the containers milkshakes and sodas come in are recyclable plastic. This, she said, is because the compostable version of this product doesn’t qualify as compostable as defined by the garbage company because it doesn’t breakdown fast enough.

“When we first started using compostables they were so rare they were not in high demand and I was searching for sources,” Mazzetti Olson said. “Now one of the best compostable suppliers is World Centric.”

Alternatives to polystyrene

World Centric operates in a nearly 14,600-square-foot facility in Sonoma County, creating more than 360 biodegradable foodservice and retail products that will turn to soil in a commercial composting facilities within 180 days.

“All of our products are plant-based and made from renewable materials such as sugarcane waste or bagasse, bamboo, wheatstraw, and PLA—a bioplastic made from primarily corn starches. We make flatware from PLA blended with a filler which gives it rigidity as well as heat resistance,” explained Mark Marinozzi, vice president of marketing for Rohnert Park-based World Centric.

That PLA-wrapped cutlery has been the company’s No. 1 seller. Other products that have been popular include the molded fiber plates, to-go fiber clamshells, and hot and cold cups.

“These products are used in almost all foodservice operations, and as more foodservice establishments shift to using compostables, we see an increase in sales for these products,” Marinozzi said.

The company was founded in 2004 by Aseem Das as a nonprofit to raise awareness of large-scale humanitarian and environmental issues. By 2009, selling compostable products became the primary focus, and World Centric became a B-Corp in 2010.

World Centric sells to business and retail customers in the United States and Canada.

Even though restaurants were doing a bang-up takeout business during the pandemic, the manufacturer says business was down last year due to the loss of purchases from businesses, schools, college cafeterias, restaurants, and events like musical festivals and conventions.

Marinozzi said before 2020 sales were up about 15% to 20% a year.

What keeps the company growing is its desire to create new and better products, government regulations, and consumer demand.

“Our R&D team works to innovate sustainable, high performing materials from agriculture waste sources,” Marinozzi said. “This year, we also launched a new line of flatware made from molded fiber. For to-go containers, we believe that containers made from molded fiber and other tree-free paper alternatives are a great performing, sustainable alternative to plastic and foam containers, and come in many different shapes and sizes to meet various foodservice needs.”

The Lunchette in Petaluma isn’t just educating customers about why it uses compostable containers for everything, the restaurant is also bringing the issue to the forefront with vendors.

This includes insisting vendors pack goods using compostable “peanuts” that dissolve immediately when they come in contact with water. This compares to the polystyrene ones which remain intact forever. Cardboard strips or other paper products are also options the restaurant suggests for packaging.

“When we order anything from vendors such as glass bottles for beverages and what not we work with them to stop using polystyrene,” explained restaurant owner Naomi Crawford. “We are moving our vendors away from polystyrene. The county can’t make outside vendors do so, so we are.”

The Lunchette has been using compostables since opening in April 2017.

“Polystyrene is the cheapest material to purchase, so when we did our business plan, we worked (compostables) into our pricing,” Crawford said. “But in the beginning we were not able to get all the compostable material we needed, but now we are able to use all compostables.”

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