My Zero-Waste Adventure: The Plot

Hi! My name is Kareena Desai. I am the founder of Perform For Change, a non-profit organization that raises money for important environmental causes through projects and performances, and a Plastic Pollution Coalition Youth Ambassador.

Recently, my family and I visited The Plot in Oceanside, California. The Plot is a plant-based restaurant founded by Executive Chef Davin Waite and CEO Jessica Waite in January 2020, and is a Plastic Pollution Coalition Business Member.

At the restaurant, our waitress Kat explained how the whole restaurant is zero waste. Here are some of the amazing things The Plot does to eliminate plastic pollution and wastefulness:

  • Use reusable utensils and crockery.
  • Offer menus made from compostable materials.
  • Create a tradition around conserving all parts of food used in cooking. Before we ordered, we were presented with an “amuse bouche” of squash with kale stem relish. Pronounced “ah-myooz boosh,” it directly translates to “it amuses the mouth” in French. At The Plot, they call these dishes, “A gift from the kitchen that we share with each guest at the beginning of their meal.”
  • Growing a garden that provides almost 30% of the produce on the menu. After the meal, we were lucky enough to meet Chef Travis, who gave us an amazing tour around their organic, raised bed garden, which is located next to the restaurant. In the garden, we saw growing all different types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs that will be used in The Plot’s kitchen. 
  • Composting food scraps. Chef Travis also told us how they compost all of their food scraps. The scraps from the kitchen get composted in their garden, and the ones from the tables get composted industrially.
  • Using reusable and biodegradable containers for takeout. The Plot makes sure that their takeout utensils and boxes are completely biodegradable. They have also partnered with Plastic Pollution Coalition Business Member ReVessel to create a reusable takeout container swap program. 
  • Refusing ingredients in single-use plastic. The Plot works with trusted vendors to make sure the produce that can’t be grown in their own garden doesn’t come in plastic packaging. They said if they received any produce wrapped in plastic, they would send it back.

At The Plot my family enjoyed an amazing Caesar salad, “cheesy” truffle fries, tomato bisque, and their delicious mushroom-based “chronic” sushi! For dessert we had a delicious olive oil and vanilla cream “plot cake” and chocolate mousse with walnut crumble.

The Plot continues to serve delicious and waste-free food to their customers every day. They are now planning to open up a new location in Costa Mesa, California. If you want to learn more about their amazing work, please visit their website at theplotrestaurant.com.

Kat, me (Kareena), and Chef Travis

More Resources to Keep Your Eatery Plastic-Free

The Plot is one of a growing number of food businesses now making the change we need to end plastic pollution and wastefulness. And for good reason: In addition to being better for people and the planet, these businesses are helping to advance real, systemic solutions to plastic pollution by tapping into the plastic-free principles: reuse, refill, repair, share, and regenerate. 

Do you work in the food business? Restaurant and other eatery owners and operators can learn more about how to reduce plastic in food prep, service, and delivery with Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Plastic-Free Eatery Guide. In addition, we invite your plastic-free eatery to join our Coalition

6

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.

More Resources:

Plastic Pollution Coalition member Oceanic Global collaborated with hospitality industry leaders, public health experts, policy-makers, and nonprofits to develop COVID-19 reopening sustainability guidelines for businesses in the hospitality industry.

The resources include a COVID-19 Fact Sheet and reopening guidelines for restaurants and hotel foodservice.

Learn more.

These reopening guidelines came after over 125 health experts defend safety of reusables during COVID-19 pandemic at the end of June.

The full statement signed by health experts can be found here.

Join our global Coalition.

Amazon, Rite Aid, and Walgreens are “most improved” in annual ranking of retailer chemical safety efforts

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A report released today reveals that major retail companies are making slow but meaningful progress at improving the chemical safety of the products, food, and packaging they sell, but nearly half of those scored — including every restaurant chain evaluated — have failed to take any public measures to help eliminate toxic chemicals from the products they carry. The third annual Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals evaluated and graded the chemical policies and practices of 40 of the largest North American retailers, including grocery and fast food chains, as part of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families’ Mind the Store campaign.

Four retailers received the highest grades for their work to protect customers from toxic products and packaging, setting the pace for the industry: Apple (A+), Target (A), Walmart (A-) and IKEA(A-). In 2018, WalgreensRite Aid, and Amazon were ranked “most improved” with all three companies announcing sweeping chemical safety policies over the past two months.

Mike Schade, Mind the Store Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals Healthy Families and report co-author said, “Companies can prevent harm and protect public health by taking common sense steps to phase out toxic chemicals in everyday products. Retailers have an important role to play – they have both the power and the moral responsibility to eliminate and safely replace toxic chemicals to ‘mind the store.’ They should stop letting chemical corporations put public health at risk.”

Nearly half of retailers evaluated for Who’s Minding the Store? received a grade of F for failing to announce policies or publicly report progress to assess, reduce or eliminate toxic chemicals in the products or packaging they sell. However, year-over-year results reveal that retail chains have improved their chemical safety efforts after receiving poor grades on the Retailer Report Card. 72 percent of the 29 retailers evaluated in both 2017 and 2018 improved their scores by taking measures such as establishing new chemical safety policies, banning chemicals of concern from private-label brands, and expanding their chemical bans to new products.

Chain restaurants were analyzed for the first time this year and significantly lagged behind other retailers in reducing chemical hazards. These companies have been slow to announce chemicals policies and to publicly address toxic chemicals, such as phthalates and PFAS, in packaging and other food contact materials. Six fast food chains were evaluated representing 10 brands, with all companies earning Fs: Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Panera, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Taco Bell, Tim Hortons, Starbucks, and Subway.

Other retail sectors with poor performance include dollar stores (average grade of F), department stores (F), beauty shops (D-) and office supply stores (D-).

For a full list of the evaluated companies and their grades, and to contact companies to demand chemical safety improvements, visit RetailerReportCard.com.

“Learning and developmental disabilities now affect 1 in 6 children. Over a quarter of these disabilities are linked to toxic chemical exposures,” said Tracy Gregoire, Learning Disabilities Association of America’s Healthy Children Project Coordinator. “Prenatal and early childhood exposure to harmful chemicals in consumer products and food packaging can lead to life-long impacts and chronic health conditions. Major retailers have both the opportunity and the responsibility to become industry leaders by keeping toxic chemicals out of products and packaging to protect children’s minds and bodies.”

Jose Bravo, Coordinator of the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, said “Once again, dollar stores fall among the worst national retailers when it comes to protecting customers and our families from toxic chemicals–and none of them have done much to ease product safety concerns in over a year. People of color and the poor depend on these discount retail chains, and our families deserve safe and nontoxic products just as much as any other family. While dollar stores continue to lag behind other retailers on toxic chemical safety, we continue to worry that our children and vulnerable populations are getting more than our share of toxic chemical exposures.”

“The food we buy should nourish us, not expose us to toxic chemicals from packaging and processing,” warned Mike Belliveau, Executive Director of Environmental Health Strategy Center and co-author of the report. “Restaurant chains are serving up a recipe for poor health by failing to slash the use of toxic chemicals in food packaging and other food contact materials. Toxic industrial chemicals like phthalates and PFAS don’t belong in the food we eat. Consumers expect a lot more leadership from food retailers in getting toxic chemicals out of the food supply chain.”

To evaluate retailers’ policies, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Campaign for Healthier Solutions, Getting Ready for Baby campaign, Environmental Defence (Canada), and Safer States collected and reviewed publicly available information about corporate safer chemicals programs, and shared draft findings with retailers to provide them an opportunity to review the conclusions, disclose additional information, and make new public commitments toward safer chemicals as of November 9, 2018. Companies selected for evaluation were among the top forty North American retailers by sales or commanded the largest market share in one of twelve major retail sectors. Full methodology details are available at RetailerReportCard.com.

Take Action: Tell major retailers: Get toxic chemicals out of products!

Safer Chemicals Healthy Families leads a nationwide coalition of organizations and businesses working to safeguard American families from toxic chemicals. The group’s Mind the Store campaign challenges big retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and substitute them with safer alternatives.

Join our global Coalition.