Restaurants in the Newport area are trying to ensure that their growing dependency on take-out meals does not generate more plastic and threaten the area’s environmental gains.
Plastic has long been a target for greens because it fouls beaches, endangers marine life, and puts further pressure on Rhode Island’s sole landfill.
The threat has spurred several successful campaigns in the Newport area, including Clean Ocean Access and Strawless Newport, which has taken 50,000 plastic straws a week out of the environment, according to Kara DiCamillo, the campaign organizer.
But plastic has bounced back following the disclosure that the COVID-19 virus may live for up to three days on the material. This has led to a series of measures easing the use of single-use plastic, including the May 11 announcement by Governor Gina Raimondo that restaurants could reopen with limited outdoor seating on May 18, as long as utensils are disposed or sanitized after use.
“We are using more plastic than ever before,” said Sean Westhoven, manager of Bar ‘Cino in Washington Square. “It’s breaking my heart. I can’t imagine how much plastic is used right now. It has to be mind-boggling.”
Fluke Newport, a family restaurant that specializes in fish and offered a full dining experience on Bowen’s Warf before the lockdown, is one of the many businesses that have been thrown a lifeline by take-out.
Geremie Callaghan, Fluke’s owner, told WUN that her use of take-out before COVID-19 was limited to doggy bags for satisfied customers but that it now accounts for “one hundred percent” of her business. She sells about 100 meals in a good week – a fifth of her former sales but enough to retain seven staff.
Callaghan said that Fluke will remain dependent on take-out for some time because she does not offer outside dining and so she cannot take advantage of the governor’s restaurant plan.
Fluke is among 34 Newport restaurants that have joined the Strawless Newport campaign, and Callaghan described herself as a “true friend” of the environment. She avoids plastic by using compostable containers and a paper bag, even though this adds at least a dollar to the cost of a three-course meal.
Steve Lucier, owner of the popular Boru Noodle Bar, is another committed green who takes egg shells and food scraps to the growers market for composting during the summer, and donates used cooking oil to a diesel company. Lucier packs his take-out meals in recycled cardboard containers and uses compostable cutlery made from corn starch, and bamboo chopsticks.
In spite of such efforts, it is left to customers to dispose of their own waste and many do not understand that take-out materials can often be added to their compost. Even if they do, the material may not meet the standards required by the composters, said Jayne Merner Senecal, owner of the Earth Care Farm, the largest commercial composter in the Newport area.
Senecal took in 25,000 tons of compostable waste in 2019 but said that only a tiny amount came from homes and restaurants in the form of food scraps. She does not accept paper bags, which often contain the chemical PSA, utensils made from corn starch, or paper straws that are coated with wax. “It’s a challenge for me. I can’t risk any contamination,” she said.
Senecal said that another barrier to accepting food scraps from restaurants are the tiny stickers placed on produce, which are also plastic-based. Her staff do not have the time to separate the stickers from compostable food scrap, she said.
“Restaurants are our biggest hurdle,” agreed Conor McManus, co-owner of Roadside Revival, a service in the Newport area that collects food scraps from 325 homes and delivers to composters, including the Earth Care Farm. “Kitchens are hectic and managers don’t want the extra hassle of separating food waste.”
Given the challenges, some restaurants have given up on composting altogether. “It is more practical to use recyclables and rely on customers to do the right thing,” said Sean Westhoven from Bar ‘Cino.
But even recycling faces challenges during the pandemic. Jared Rhodes, from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which manages recycling for the state, said that there had been a 6 percent increase in recycling, mostly from residences, since the lockdown over the same period in 2019.
But Rhodes also said that the income earned from reselling recycled plastic had fallen by 54 percent. McClaughlin from Clean Ocean Access attributed the decline to the falling price of oil and predicted it would further reduce the incentive to recycle plastic.
McLaughlin agreed that this new landscape presents new challenges for Newport’s green movement and that more needs to be done to help restaurants recycle and compost. This is a goal for his new campaign, the Healthy Soils and Healthy Seas Rhode Island Projects, he said.
“We are ready and able to help any size restaurant to compost (and subsidize the cost) and make sure all plastics are recycled. Improving ocean health starts with action on land,” McLaughlin said.
Meanwhile, hard-pressed restaurant owners try to juggle the demands of their business and the environment. “We live in a beautiful place,” said Callaghan from Fluke Newport. “We could do more but we do the best we can. Even if our take-out waste does not end up as compost it will at least be degraded in the (Johnston) landfill.”
Steve Lucier from Boru Noodles agreed. “Protecting the environment is a moral decision, not just business,” he said.