Restaurants, Single-Use Plastic, and COVID

A Q&A with restaurant owner Paul Nuñez of Lucille’s American Cafe.

By Jackie Nuñez

As an anti-plastic activist, founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Program Manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition, I have worked to eliminate needless single-use plastic for 10 years. The past six months have been challenging as COVID19 continues its spread, and it’s clear when we speak with businesses that confusion reigns right now when it comes to restaurants, COVID, and single-use plastic. 

Through our work with Coalition members, the Clean Seas Coalition, and Break Free From Plastic, we have learned there is a need to provide more resources and firsthand accounts of how to reopen a restaurant or business safely with less single-use plastic.

I interviewed my brother Paul Nuñez, owner of Lucille’s American Cafe, in Weston, Florida, on this topic, and he had great insight to share.

Jackie Nuñez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw and Program Manager at Plastic Pollution Coalition. Photo by David Royal.

For those of us working to eliminate plastic pollution, the reopening of restaurants has been very confusing. For example, California published their guidelines which didn’t recommend disposables for dine-in except for menus and condiments. 

We’re using disposable condiments now but I don’t want to. We are going to phase it out soon. We did it because the health department in Florida recommended it, but I see no problem with reusable containers for condiments, since we have always wiped down the containers between use every time.

The CDC did release their guidelines for opening restaurants, a few days later after California did. In which the CDC recommended disposables for dine-in but counties varied in their recommendations too. 

Right. Exactly.

So restaurants are confused.

Well, the restaurants have to listen to the health department. In Florida, it’s the Department of Business Professional Regulations. So when they allowed us to open we got a list of what we have to do and what they recommend that we do. I don’t actually remember them all, because we were pretty much doing all of them already. The only guideline that they gave us is to put up plexiglass between patrons if you can’t have 6’ distancing. 

One of the things I heard was that a restaurant in Southern California was so confused by the recommendations that they were wrapping their chairs in plastic.

I think at this point most restaurants have cleanable furniture. The days of restaurants having cloth booths that you can’t clean are over, but even with that I guess you could douse them in Lysol. We always have leather covering or plastic chairs, or polished wooden chairs and we just disinfect them.

When you posted your opening guidelines on social media you stated that you would wipe down condiments between customers, what changed?

Paul Nuñez of Lucille’s American Cafe

I did, that was my plan and then right before we opened, the Department of Professional Business Regulation recommended nothing on the table and disposables (condiments).

For me I am trying to battle what I perceive as doing the right thing and the misinformation that everyone has. Everyone is confused, to the point that I have people saying it’s “irresponsible for you to be open” and they’ll say “Well, COVID is still out there.”

The silver lining for me is that I’ve always been frustrated that a lot of restaurants don’t have the standards they should have for cleanliness and sanitation and the Department of Health is overwhelmed. They should visit at least 4 times a year, and they come out once or twice a year for me. 

I’ve always sanitized, I’ve always disinfected, and I’ve always wiped condiments in between use. Studies show about 50 percent of men don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom! I think you have to have a system, you can’t just bring the ketchup bottle back and throw it in with the rest of them. 

We’ve always had a system where there was an unloading area for the busser to put all of the condiments and then it was a servers’ side work to get a sanitized towel, wipe it down, dry it, and then put it back to the running station. We have always done that.

In an article from CNN Traveler, Gauri Devidayal, Co-Founder of The Table, Mumbai, said: “While hygiene may have taken over sustainability as the word du jour, let’s not forget the reason we all shifted away from plastic straws and mineral water bottles… Let’s not go the plastic cutlery and individually packed sanitiser sachets route just because it’s an easier, more visible effort. Let’s not, even temporarily, widen our carbon footprint in the name of safer dining. If brands are able to reassure diners with integrity and honesty of the measures they are taking, it’s entirely possible to find a middle ground.”

I agree.

I thought it was really smart to share your guidelines for reopening on social media prior to reopening. Do you have your guidelines displayed anywhere in your restaurant? For your customers to see what measures you are taking?

I have it up on the menu display case up front, but I noticed that most people don’t really read that. I think I need something for them when they come in. I am even staying away from paper menus. I bought 500 paper menus which would normally last me 2 days. It’s been 3 weeks and I probably have about 350 left. I’ve put a QR code at every table. Everybody loves their phones so they come in with their phone, hit the QR code and come up with the menu.

Also, I ordered for my AC units an air sanitation unit which is basically a UV light system. With the amount of air that I move at the restaurant, my engineer told me we can sanitize 97% of the air every 5 minutes. 

Let’s talk about those gloves. It seems to me a better model to have gloves off with servers washing their hands. Is that part of your guidelines, servers must wear gloves?

Masks are required by law, and cooks must wear gloves. It’s recommended servers wear gloves, and so we do that to put the customers as ease, but in the end it’s about protecting yourself and others, and the way you protect yourself is you wash your hands before you eat, touch your face, touch your eyes, and wear a mask.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

The basics: good hygiene, hand washing, wear a mask, stay home if you’re sick, and protect yourself, is really all people need to be doing. Disposables for everything is total overkill and not really helping the problem at all, if anything it’s worse. It just increases the environmental impact.

Would you ever be open to a reuse system for take out? There are some great businesses emerging with cup share, and to-go reusables container systems, one is called “Dispatch Goods,” and the other for coffee/cafes is Vessel. Basically a third party system providing the stainless steel vessel or boxes cafes/restaurants and working with businesses or campuses to have drop off boxes at various locations where they pick it up clean and sterilize them and redistribute to participating businesses.

Yeah you told me about that, kinda like the linen company that picks up your dirty tablecloths and napkins weekly and drops off the clean linens. It sounds like a good system, I think as with anything, you need a bunch of businesses buying into it. You’ve got to get that traction, unfortunately I think that model today with businesses dealing with COVID-19, it’s going to be tough. People are going to be looking at these containers and saying “well are they clean are they sanitized,” my plates are clean and sanitized so it is not so different.  

I guess the only thing different is people would be handling the used containers.

Right, but people are handling the plastic boxes and the silverware packets, we hand them a rolled up silverware packet, you are still touching it, it’s the same thing.

Yes, it’s the same thing and there are studies showing the COVID-19 virus lasts longer on plastic than any other material.

Exactly. I do think that’s the wave of the future, going away from single-use disposables to reusables. Unfortunately it’s going to take time, and I think the government has a lot to do with that. You and I have had this conversation in the past, and I don’t really want all the plastic boxes, or the single- use items, but I can’t even get those alternatives from my distributor without special ordering and paying 4 times the cost of my competitor who is using cheap plastic or foam boxes.  

How would more legislation to reduce single-use plastic impact you?

I welcome the government banning plastic because it would create a level playing field and it forces the distributors to stock the alternative products to adhere to the law. When everyone ran out of paper straws and we had the paper straw shortage, essentially production ramped up and now you can get the paper straws. It may have taken time but business always reacts a little quicker, but it definitely took the movement and a lot of local and state legislation that moved it along. 

If single-use plastic items are banned, businesses are always going to adapt, and they adapt quickly. That’s always been shown, even with the reaction to COVID-19. They have to, much faster than the government. So when the government says you can’t use this item or that item, businesses figure it out right away, production ramps up, another company steps in, somebody figures out another way. And that is what’s great about America. Businesses are always going to step in to fill the need. Just like the plastic companies have figured out a way to make money off of the huge government subsidies to the petroleum companies, make a ton of money and not be liable for the waste. If their plastic products are banned the same companies could figure out a
way to create reusable take out items, because they are going to want to keep their market share. 

That’s why we introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act at the federal level to address the system that enables plastic pollution to exist, from wellhead to wastestream, along with the environmental justice issues of the frontline and end of line communities that are affected by the petrochemical industry that produces plastic. When it passes it would serve as a baseline for communities to build upon for even more comprehensive bans that are needed to protect them and prevent plastic from polluting their land, air, water, their bodies, and managing the waste. 

Right, and that law is needed, because I tell you if that passed I will get a ton of emails within a week of it passing, from companies saying “hey here’s the law, you have to buy our stuff”. Within 2 weeks I would have my distributor saying “hey, we are coming out with a new line of products,” and I would have salespeople walking into my restaurant saying “this stuff is getting banned, you are going to have to switch and I’ve got this product for you that will comply to the new law.”

Businesses will react so fast, but the government gives us too much time. They say “oh, businesses need time to adjust, we are going to give them 6 months to a year to implement this.” Businesses would most likely be able to implement it within a month as long as the supply chain is there. In some cases the supply chain may take a little bit longer to ramp up, but businesses would find the way to adapt.

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