While downtown-restaurant owners grapple with a Jan. 1 deadline to start recycling their cans and bottles, one local establishment is trying to make entrepreneurial lemonade out of the regulatory “lemon.”
Under the state law—passed two years ago with a lengthy phase-in period—all businesses serving alcohol must recycle their bottles and cans (see “Crunch Time,” Oct. 17 Xpress). To give the law some teeth, applicants for ABC permits or permit renewals will have to show they have a recycling system in place. But with storage space at a premium and the volume of recyclables too great for the once-a-week, city-subsidized pickup, many downtown restaurateurs say they’re stumped.
For Matthew Miles Ford, however, the law sounded less like an ax falling and more like opportunity knocking. A UNCA student who works at the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village, Ford is partnering with Corner Kitchen owners Joe Scully and Kevin Westmoreland to form Greenbeanery, a recycling business catering specifically to restaurants.
Scully says the company plans to customize recycling programs for its clients, in terms of both on-site storage and pickup frequency, depending on the volume of materials. The idea, he explains, is built on the model his own restaurant has been using for the past three years.
“Believe me, it wasn’t me,” he says about the business’ self-implemented discipline. “It was my young, very liberal employees who said, ‘Dude, we have to recycle.’”
Like most other eateries, the Corner Kitchen has very little storage space. And when word got out that other establishments were concerned about how to implement such programs, the 19-year-old Ford approached his bosses about starting a company to meet that need. Although the ABC law applies only to alcohol containers (i.e. glass and aluminum), Greenbeanery wants clients to recycle everything in order to offset its poor return on glass.
Although Scully was reluctant to spell out the cost for the new service, which will start in January, he says it should be in the $150 to $250 a month range, emphasizing that recycling more material means restaurants may be able to scale back on trash-removal costs.
The new company is starting out with one truck, and Scully says that, even as his business expands, there’ll still be plenty of room for other recyclers to get a piece of the action.
At press time, Greenbeanery was slated to pitch its plan to the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association on Dec. 11, hoping not only to win clients but also to get feedback on the group’s concerns.
“To us, it’s a simple problem,” says Scully. “You just have to solve it.”
AIR has been a key player on the issue locally, contacting city and state officials in an attempt to get help with what it sees as an unfunded mandate.
“We are trying to get on [the Asheville City] Council’s agenda,” says Executive Chef Tres Hundertmark of The Lobster Trap, an association member. The restaurant, which rents an off-site trash bin for its waste, says it has no room on the premises to store recyclables. Nonetheless, The Lobster Trap is already sorting bottles and cans behind the bar in a sort of dry run before the new law kicks in.
“We are trying to generate an idea of what our volume is going to be,” says Hundertmark. “We’re doing tests to see how we’re going to comply.”
And, he says, pickup isn’t even the big problem. That comes when restaurants begin blocking downtown’s pedestrian-heavy sidewalks with recycling bins.
Scully agrees that compliance won’t always be easy. “It’s hard, what we do to put food on a plate,” he says. “Then to add something like this that doesn’t even bring in revenue? It boggles the mind.”
Meanwhile, recycling isn’t the only disposal issue on the table. Last month, Bistro 1896, a longtime Pack Square restaurant, sent a letter to local media complaining that the business was soon to lose its trash bin. It had been provided by the landlord but will not be under the new lease. Bemoaning the prospect of having to place large volumes of trash on the sidewalk, the letter calls on the city of Asheville to address an impending crisis.
“We’re still searching for a way to dispose of our trash,” says Bistro spokesperson Susan Crockett. Six restaurants use the bin, which she says must be removed by the end of the year. Unless something is done, says Crockett, restaurants may be forced to line downtown sidewalks with garbage bags every night.
And while city staff have been open to discussion, solutions have been elusive, she reports. “The city is saying they are basically not in the trash-removal business, and there aren’t any guidelines” for disposal.
Public Works Director Mark Combs says there are reasons the city doesn’t pick up commercial trash and recyclables. “In the ‘80s, we were in the bulk-pickup business. Then the trucks got worn out and needed replacing. Instead, the city changed the ordinance,” he explains.
Getting back into the business now would mean using tax money to compete with for-profit companies while enjoying certain other advantages, such as not having to pay the same taxes. Besides, notes Combs, city staff can’t handle the extra work required to customize services for each restaurant. “How the heck would staff wade through that?” he wonders.
But with downtown space at an increasing premium, some say the city will need to provide outdoor-storage areas for trash and recyclables in between pickups.
“I feel like we’ve got people talking about the issue,” says Crockett. “We need to get City Council on board to see what the situation is.”
In the meantime, Ford and his lone truck are gearing up for Jan. 1, when glass and aluminum from bars and restaurants will be banned from trash bins and landfills. “We have to be ready,” he warns.