Tourists who visit Chupacabra Latin Café often ask, “What’s this town have against straws? Why doesn’t anyone use a straw?” laughs Emily Abernathy, who owns the restaurant with her chef-husband, Patrick. “Our counter person will say with disbelief, ‘Don’t you know about the problem with plastic straws?’”
Apparently, the Asheville area’s growing commitment to keeping plastic and other materials out of our landfills is obvious to — and sometimes misunderstood by — outsiders. But who knew the efforts would extend to 5-gallon plastic buckets?
According to the North Carolina Food Code Manual, single-use articles, such as to-go plastics and bulk food containers, must be discarded and cannot be reused on the premises of food service businesses. The regulation brings to light the unique challenges health codes can present for local restaurants when it comes to recycling.
Some Asheville restaurants complain that this and other regulations interfere with their recycling initiatives, while others quietly step around the bureaucracy to find other, clever ways to reuse and upcycle plastics.
“I think you should be able to reuse as much as you can if it’s not hurting anyone,” says Natalie Moore, manager at downtown restaurant Blue Dream Curry House. “Health code regulations are completely wack and should be updated.”
Restaurants that receive food shipments from suppliers in 5-gallon buckets are not permitted to reuse those containers on the premises, according to Zo Mpofu of the Buncombe County Health Department.
But recycling the buckets isn’t an option in Asheville. “Bulky plastics are not part of our recycling program,” explains Nancy Lawson of Curbside Management, Inc., Asheville’s recycling service.
Some businesses may argue that the regulation inhibits their recycling efforts. But Chupacabra Latin Café doesn’t stress about it. Instead, staff put the plastic buckets in the trash as required, where they are claimed by local gardeners and others for reuse.
“We have a lot of regulars who garden, so we keep them in a stack near the back door,” Abernathy says. “Some of our own staff take them home, and every so often, someone will come by and take them all.” She says anyone who wants them is welcome to pick them up from the waste pile.
Beyond the bucket issue, many local restaurants actively explore ways to limit waste as much as possible. “We recycle cardboard, glass, plastic and we compost,” says Abernathy, adding that Chupacabra is also “trying to reduce the amount of recyclable materials used to reduce our recycling waste.”
As part of those efforts, she says, she closely watches what’s happening with recycling on a national level and follows suit. “We are trying to reduce our commitment to plastic in general and make sure we send items to recycle correctly,” she adds.
The Reynold’s Mountain restaurant has also shifted away from plastic straws in favor of biodegradable straws. “We don’t offer straws to customers and only give them out when asked,” she says. The restaurant tried paper straws, she says, but they disintegrated too quickly.
The restaurant also uses biodegradable containers for takeout. “If we send someone home with food, we don’t want the container to have a negative impact on the environment,” says Abernathy. “We try to do every little thing we can to help.”
HomeGrown, which has locations on Merriman Avenue and in West Asheville, has been committed to recycling and composting for many years. “We have a lot of customers and staff who are passionate about recycling, so we really try to find every small way to reduce,” says Sean Cudmore, manager at the Merriman Avenue location.
HomeGrown’s to-go utensils are compostable — they’re made of potatoes. And instead of sending cardboard from drink six-packs straight to the recycling bin, the staff at HomeGrown use the cardboard first for notes and orders.
“I’m really proud of how we minimize trash bags,” Cudmore adds. “If there’s no organic waste and just paper in the bag, instead of sending the plastic garbage bag to the landfill, we dump the paper waste into a container and reuse the plastic garbage bag.”
In addition, Homegrown offers a self-serve water station for customers at the counter, limiting the amount of wasted water at tables. “At the end of the night, we always have a big jug of unused water,” says Cudmore. “Instead of throwing it out, we will use the water to presoak dishes.”
And, like Chupacabra, HomeGrown runs a tight straw game, offering only compostable straws and keeping them behind the counter. “We don’t have any signage or anything advertising the straws,” he says. “It has cut down our straw usage exponentially.”
Like Chupacabra and HomeGrown, Blue Dream Curry House disposes of food-grade buckets per health department regulations but encourages staff and customers to claim them for other uses. In the interest of avoiding food waste, the restaurant uses a composting service, Compost Now, and all unused, cooked rice is given to local homeless individuals each evening.
Blue Dream makes other waste-reduction efforts as well. “We are always really, really good about recycling paper, and we only give out green, compostable straws to patrons who ask,” says Moore. She also explains that the restaurant uses biodegradable containers for takeout food, except for curry sauces — the earth-friendly containers it’s used have not proven durable enough to handle the piping hot liquids. Instead, Moore urges customers to bring containers from home for takeout sauces. The restaurant will even sanitize the containers before filling them with sauce.
So, next time you hear a visitor complaining about Asheville’s loathing of plastic straws, explain how local restaurants are investing in the future by reducing and reusing — except for the plastic buckets they must place in the “trash.”