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Greening takeout: Moving past plastic and polystyrene

Portland, Ore. and Brookline, Mass. may be on opposite ends of the country, but restaurants in both cities are among the many adjusting to life without plastic bags and polystyrene. Foam clamshell boxes and crinkly petroleum-based bags are becoming persona non grata, and it’s changing the way restaurants pack takeout orders.

Tracy Frankel, president and owner of the 18-unit Portland-based Pizzicato chain, made the switch to compostable plastic bags about five years ago, far ahead of the city’s plastic bag ban last fall. But the chain has since reevaluated. A national packaging supplier’s online store shows that a case of standard grocery-size white plastic bags costs $9.99 for 700 bags. The same size biodegradable bags cost $14.99 for a case of 500, almost double the cost of regular plastic. “We had the feeling that those compostable bags were getting thrown away and not put in the compost. They were very expensive, and they didn’t give us a chance to advertise or to brand,” says Frankel.

Pizzicato now is switching to paper bags, and it’s printing its own branded messaging on them. The opportunity to turn bags into a marketing vehicle helps justify expenses, says Frankel, though she also notes the cost of the paper bags is lower than the biodegradable plastic ones.

Brookline’s ban, effective last October, is two-fold. The plastic bag part of the ban only applies to large retail stores, but the disposable polystyrene container ban includes restaurants. Jim Solomon, chef-owner of The Fireplace, an upscale American restaurant in Brookline, implemented changes well before he was required to do so. For almost a decade, takeout orders have been packaged in recycled paperboard containers.

“The costs have come down significantly over the years on greener alternatives,” Solomon says. But not every eco-friendly option is feasible from a cost standpoint. Solomon regularly checks prices for green products and puts them into the mix at his restaurant whenever possible. And because he is constantly evaluating, Solomon’s move to eco-packaging hasn’t hurt his business. In fact, he says it actually has helped. “We have developed a reputation as an environmentally friendly restaurant. Because Brookline is a community that cares about social issues, the response in terms of greater sales has been evident,” says Solomon. He also has seen a notable boost in catering sales. “We’ve won some of our largest catering jobs because more and more businesses are making it part of their criteria to secure contracts with green vendors,” he says.

Solomon advises other operators stay to “ahead of the curve and take steps to green your restaurant at your pace, rather than lagging and having your local community dictate what you have to do.” Shop around for competitive pricing. There are more options than ever, with containers made from materials such as sugar cane fibers, recycled paper or corn-based plastic. And a move to green packaging can then be rolled into your marketing initiatives. “There can be a short-term expense difference, which is sometimes pretty even, if you take an expanded view of the issue,” says Solomon.

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