July 20, 2018

Food businesses trending away from single-use plastic items

Courtesy / Migis Hotel Group
Courtesy / Migis Hotel Group
Peter Twachtman, COO of the Migis Hotel Group, said the company has switched from plastic drinking straws to paper straws at the beginning of 2018 in its six Maine hotels and three outside the state.

Increasing numbers of Maine food businesses and lodgings are putting themselves in the forefront of national and international trends to switch out from petroleum-based items like straws, to-go containers and disposable cups and plates, to eco-friendly compostable versions.

The Migis Hotel Group switched from plastic drinking straws to paper straws at the beginning of 2018 in its six of Maine hotels and three outside the state, Chief Operating Officer Peter Twachtman told Mainebiz. At perhaps 200 covers per dinner, 80 per breakfast and 200 for lunch at just one location, that's 450,000 to 500,000 straws per year, he said.

"It adds up fast," he said.

Twachtman credits his wife Evan with spurring that change.

"In January, she said, 'You've got to get ahead of this. You've got to push it through your properties,'" he recalled. "Now there's a huge wave to do it. We feel really good about it."

The policy is to serve drinks without straws and if someone requests one, to offer a paper straw. The group is moving out of other single-use plastics, too, he said — wooden cocktail stirrers, reusable and washable eating ware for Migis Lodge's lunchtime cookouts, paper cups by the water fountain and bamboo to-go containers.

Sourcing alternatives can be a bit difficult, he said. The alternatives are there, but increasing demand has caused the group's supplier to be backordered. So the group does some ordering online.

'Where's my straw?'

Pricewise, alternatives are a little more expensive, by perhaps a penny per item, he said.

"But at the end of the day, the net effect is better than using plastic," he said. With straws, the greater cost is balanced by reduced use.

"If we were putting a paper straw in every drink, it could be $5,000 per season," he said. "But we think maybe 5% to 10% of people will ask for it."

Most customers and staffers have been supportive, he said. A few staffers were concerned about possible customer pushback. Twachman said he sees that as an opportunity to explain the initiative.

Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro in Portland has similar initiatives. Manager Andy Cole said the eatery started buying compostable straws three months ago.

"They look and feel like plastic, but can go in our compost bin," he said. "We've added onto our drink menu that straws are available upon request but we aren't putting them in every drink automatically anymore. We're probably using about a third of what we were this time last year."

Customers haven't complained.

" I expected people to say, 'Where's my straw?' But that hasn't happened," Cole said.

Sourcing alternatives through the restaurant's regular supplier was easy, he said. But compostable straws are about $175 for a box of 10,000, versus about $100 for plastic.

"So we're paying almost twice as much," he said. "But if we use half as many, then it's all good."

Municipalities ban plastic straws

On July 19, the City of Portland announced it would ban plastic straws from the Clock Tower Cafe, in City Hall, and urge other businesses to follow suit. City Manager Jon Jennings made the decision at the July 18 Sustainability & Transportation Committee meeting following a presentation on single-use plastics from Ocean Avenue Elementary School third-grader Phoebe MacDonald.

In March, the Sea Dog Brewing Co. in Camden announced it cut its use of plastic straws by 30% and uses a program that turns food waste into biofuels in an effort to decrease its environmental footprint.

A website called Sustainable Seacoast lists other southern Maine restaurants eliminating single-use plastics. They include Flatbread Co. and BRGR. Portland and Kittery's Maine Squeeze's website says its uses compostable to-go ware.

Sustainable Seacoast restaurant members commit to using reusable dinnerware, no polystyrene, no plastic bags, recycling and on-demand-only straws and to-go utensils. If bio-plastics are offered, commercial composting service and receptacles must be provided.

It offers "next step opportunities," such as no beverages available in plastic bottles and "Bring Your Own" cups and bags.

Sustainable food pledge

On Mount Desert Island, 43 businesses have made similar commitments to a "sustainable food business pledge" initiated by A Climate To Thrive, a nonprofit working to achieve energy independence for MDI by 2030.

Food businesses committed to implement at least three of six practices for the 2018 season:

  1. Eliminate plastic straws and stirrers.
  2. Trade polystyrene to-go containers, cups, bowls and plates for containers that are biodegradable in the marine environment.
  3. Eliminate plastic bags for to-go orders.
  4. Use reusable and washable eating ware whenever possible.
  5. Eliminate non-compostable plastic garbage bags.
  6. Compost food waste, or give to farmers. If using compostable bioplastic disposable products that are discarded at the business, have them composted in a high-heat composting facility.

Food businesses that adopt at least three of the practices get display decals and are listed in the nonprofit's publicity campaign.

Many MDI food businesses were pursuing similar initiatives anyway, said Jill Higgins, co-coordinator of A Climate To Thrive.

"But it hadn't gone very far in terms of working together," she said.

An initial restaurant meeting in April drew nearly 50 attendees. The program officially launched this season. Most business are doing five practices.

Price drop expected

A Climate To Thrive is working with distributors and vendors to find eco-friendly products. Higgins said she expects increasing demand will cause prices to drop. Overall outcomes are not in yet.

But Coffee Hound owners Jen Litteral told the nonprofit that the Bar Harbor coffee bar sells about 4,000 to 6,000 to-go drinks in the week around July 4.

"They have been using alternatives to conventional plastic since they opened, so you can extrapolate how much regular plastic they are keeping out of the waste stream," Higgins said via email, adding, "Our vision is to spread this to more food businesses and places like school and hospital cafeterias, and also to expand into the hospitality and retail sectors."

Simultaneously, A Climate To Thrive is supporting a new MDI group proposing ordinances for MDI's four towns to ban single-use plastic bags and single-use polystyrene take-out containers.

Christy Seed, who heads the group, said subcommittees are taking the draft ordinances to the four select boards this summer.

"We're hoping for enactment by the summer of 2019," she said. "I think we can do it as long as businesses in the communities are aware this is taking place."

The group is also discussing a plastic straw ban, she said.

Maine's trends are in synch with the big players.

This week, Marriott International announced it will stop using plastic straws and stirrers at its more than 6,500 properties by next July, potentially eliminating the use of more than 1 billion plastic straws and 250 million stirrers per year, NPR reported. It joined Starbucks, McDonald's and Alaska Air, which made similar commitments.

Charlotte Mace, executive director of Biobased Maine in Portland, said the industry association is focusing on replacement of fossil-derived plastics with more sustainable alternatives made from trees due to Maine's sustainably harvested forests. The sector is still in development.

"We know it's a trend that's coming," she said.

At a Maine forest industry summit held in June, she added, "One of the things that came up as a potential future idea for Maine forest industry was paper straws — it's a huge wave now. Cities and states want to ban them. What better than to make them out of sustainably harvested wood fiber, particularly at a time in the Maine forest industry when we have excess fiber, primarily softwood?"


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