Plastics are a Beach

Did you know it’s World Oceans Day? I’m going to guess not. But you knew it was National Donut Day, and I know you’re looking forward to Selfie Day – so why isn’t something as huge as the ocean on your holiday radar? I have a hypothesis.

Perhaps it’s because there are two ways to celebrate environmental holidays: 1) scare tactics and guilt, or 2) creative empowerment. We’re all about empowerment over here, so while option #1 may be useful at times, we tend to prefer the second approach.

So, with World Oceans Day upon us, we’re celebrating by empowering small business owners, particularly restaurants, cafés and bars, by giving them tools to show more love to our oceans. Why? Because our oceans are filled with trash – a sad but very real truth – and guess what: we can do something about it. All we need is straws, plastic bags, bottle caps and a little bit of creativity. Let’s get started.

Straws. One plastic drinking straw is 0.3 ounces of #5 plastic. These little lightweight, on-the-go type plastics are some of the most common ocean trespassers because they easily get picked up by wind and storm water, and carried into our waterways.

According to some estimates, the average restaurant goes through enough straws in one year to equal the weight of a VW Beetle – that’s thousands of pounds of plastic straws from each restaurant. But plastic is recyclable, right? Well, not all plastics. In fact, most community recycling programs do not accept #5 plastic.

But customers need straws! Well let’s be real, some do and some don’t. Fortunately, you have a few options for reducing your restaurant’s straw use without impacting your customers. First, consider adopting an Offer First policy, a best practice of the National Restaurant Association, by asking customers if they would like a straw with their drink, rather than providing one by default – or worse, dropping a handful of straws on the table and letting even the unused ones get soggy. Another option is to “lean in” to building your brand as an eco-conscious restaurant. If you go this route, invest in reusable metal straws for customers dining in and compostable straws for to-go orders.

Plastic bags. Okay, so you’ve got the straws covered. Now let’s set our sights on a slightly larger ocean-trash accomplice: the plastic bag. Plastic shopping and produce bags are made from #2 and #4 plastics respectively, and both are difficult for the average recycling center to process because they get caught in and jam the shredders. Many national grocery chains and retail stores offer in-store recycling for these types of bags, but let’s be honest, there’s no telling where your plastic bags will end up after those to-go orders and doggie bags leave your restaurant.

Do your part to nip the plastic bag problem in the bud. First, is a bag always necessary? Again, consider implementing the Offer First policy. If a bag is necessary, think through alternative options. Paper is recyclable or compostable. Branded reusable bags could help market your restaurant and replace other branded swag. Perhaps there’s a return customer engagement opportunity by starting up your own recycling program for returned bags? Bring back 10 takeout bags and get a free appetizer! Free food? I’m in.

Bottle caps. Tiny pieces of plastic are causing some of the biggest problems when it comes to ocean trash. Yes, plastic drink bottles overall are an issue, but so too are their little plastic caps. Why not eliminate both parts of the equation and opt for a different beverage container overall? The aluminum can. Aluminum keeps beverages colder and costs less to ship/supply. Not to mention, aluminum cans are infinitely recyclable. In fact, a recycled aluminum can become another can on store shelves within 60 days. That’s crazy! And of course, aluminum cans do not contain plastic, nor do they have plastic bottle caps that can float around in the ocean. For customers dining in, stick to reusable cups. And for customers taking out, consider cans over containers with caps.

Frank Buckman, Sustainability Specialist