In 2012, Asheville became the first American city designated by the nonprofit Green Restaurant Association as a Green Dining Destination. That year, the GRA, the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute formed a coalition to encourage more environmentally sustainable practices within the city’s growing restaurant industry; they set a goal of 15 certified green restaurants and ultimately exceeded it by one.
Nearly 10 years later, Michael Oshman, CEO and founder of GRA, says, “Asheville is still doing a good job. But for obvious reasons, the past 18 months have seen a significant increase in the use of disposables.”
Like every small town and big city in America, Asheville faced unprecedented challenges when COVID-19 turned the entire restaurant industry upside down, sending many to a takeout-only model that required a dependence on food containers, bags and disposables. Unsurprisingly, that had a significant impact on waste and recyclable collections.
The city’s Sanitation Division paid particular attention to downtown as tourism began to pick up again in late spring and early summer. Street receptacles — intended to capture small waste items from normal pedestrian traffic — were emptied daily. But there was not enough staff to increase frequency, according to Asheville’s solid waste manager Jes Foster.
Instead, additional street cans were installed downtown, and the city worked with restaurants still offering takeout to ensure they had appropriately sized trash containers of their own outside their businesses to capture waste.
“Often, we found people would be eating near the restaurant, including at chairs and tables provided by the restaurant, but placing waste in the city street receptacles,” Foster says. “City staff encouraged those restaurants to provide their patrons with waste collection options.”
Takeout and at-home dining also impacted residential waste quantity, and Foster reports an uptick in requests for additional trash or recycling carts. “Since more people were at home, an increase is not surprising,” she says. “The trash weight — which differs from volume — did appear to be greater. Residential trash and recycling volume rose over the past year and a half; we don’t survey the contents of trash receptacles, so we don’t know if some also contained recyclable materials, but there was a rise in both.”
Scramble to stay green
Oshman points out that frequently a lack of clear information about the virus and an overabundance of caution led to extreme dependence on disposable items, even when limited in-house dining gradually resumed. During this latter period, many restaurants continued to use paper plates, plastic cutlery and single-serving packaged condiments. That usage was unnecessary, he believes, and could have been lessened by better in-house sanitization techniques.
“But some of it was unavoidable,” he acknowledges.
Rich Cundiff, owner of Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, says early on in the pandemic his restaurant increased its orders of eco-friendly products from distributors but was hit by a break in the supply chain. “Then, we did what everyone else did which was scramble and buy from anyplace you could find product.”
Similarly, Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, Vinnie’s South and Jettie Rae’s Oyster Bar, says even with a heads-up from his suppliers and a system in place, his restaurants still experienced challenges. “Vinnie’s was always structured so that to-go was a big part of our brand, and we stocked goods accordingly. But we ran through that quickly, so I had to make some changes of what we put our food in and scramble to find it.”
Others, like Biscuit Head owners Jason and Carolyn Roy, made multiple visits to Sam’s Club, Walmart, Ingles and elsewhere to secure products. “Everything to do with the restaurant business — from packaging to product to employees — was hard to come by,” Jason says.
Even so, Jason points out that Biscuit Head remained committed to compostable and recyclable materials. But the environmental impact of any type of to-go packaging still troubles him. “In the beginning, even the food we served outdoors on-site was in a box, and we were seeing four and five times the volume of waste.”
Cundiff says Rocky’s did its best to remain true to its eco-friendly product choices prior to COVID-19, as well. “For the most part, we have been able to stick to our guns through this, but there were moments we couldn’t get it and had to use what we could.”
Though in-house dining has returned to nearly normal levels, to-go remains a key component of the restaurant model and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Owners have adjusted accordingly, keeping in place many of the systems they initiated during the peak of the pandemic.
Cundiff used some Paycheck Protection Program funds and local grants to build small to-go shacks in front of his two Asheville restaurants to keep their two operations separate. “To-go remains a significant part of our business even now, and those shacks are permanent,” he says. “We had to learn how to simultaneously manage two businesses under one roof, which meant additional positions just for the to-go operations.”
Scheffer — who ended takeout at Jettie Rae’s this summer but plans to add it to Vinnie’s South by the end of October — launched what he calls a slot system. Using historical data combined with real-time adjustments, “We create models that tell us when to be careful or to stop taking to-go orders because it will affect the overall business,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian still has a front-of-house employee working exclusively on to-go orders, consulting with the kitchen and determining best pickup times; in the kitchen, there is an additional staff member on expo dedicated to packing to-go orders.
Here to stay as well are challenges in stocking to-go materials, though currently, it is not a shortage of product driving the problem but transporting them from warehouse to restaurants. “All the stuff is sitting in a crate in a port, and we don’t have transport to get it here,” Scheffer reveals. “The trucking industry says they are down 60,000 truckers. That affects everything and everybody.”
At Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, Cundiff still orders as much of preferred products as he can when available, but he’s had to occasionally substitute one brand for another. “We remain very concerned about the impact all of this is having on the environment,” he says. “So, we continue to use recyclable and compostable products despite the additional costs.”
Disposable to reusable
Oshman says the Green Restaurant Association is sympathetic to the unpredictable and ongoing challenges the restaurant industry faces. The nonprofit has produced videos during the pandemic “encouraging consumers who order takeout for home to opt out of things like plastic cutlery, chopsticks, napkins and single-serving condiment packets,” he says. “At the office, you can keep your own cutlery to wash and reuse.”
He also urges restaurants to use software that requires online customers to request cutlery and paper products. Both Rocky’s and Vinnie’s ask customers if they need those extras and report that most customers say no.
Oshman also continues to look at the bigger picture to find new ways to reduce waste within the hospitality industry.
“Disposables are not sustainable,” he says. “For 30 years, the move we have been encouraging restaurants to go to is replacing disposable packaging with durable reusables and a deposit system. You get your food in one, return it for sanitizing, and the restaurant or delivery service reuses it. There are businesses trying it now. It will take a lot of infrastructure, but there are smart things out there giving the benefit of takeout without the environmental costs.”
Scheffer applauds efforts to manage the waste but wonders how health departments would react. He also contemplates the additional costs restaurateurs would face if they were responsible for sorting and sanitizing the reusable items.
Cundiff is intrigued. “It sounds like a good idea,” he says. “We’d be open to trying it.”
Meanwhile, Oshman insists it is the future. “This industry will transform regarding takeaway and delivery when the right company comes along to figure out the products and software to make it convenient for them and their customers,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to do the right thing when it’s convenient.”