Beyond the fact that restaurant operators dislike the higher costs of non-plastic food containers they soon may be forced to use, they also worry that compostable materials soak up sauces and generally make food less appetizing.
“It’s not as simple as coming up with an alternative product but (making sure) that alternative product meets the needs of the restaurant’s dishes,” said Mike Colonna, the chief executive of Norms, a chain of diner-style restaurants with a dozen locations in Los Angeles County.
He was reacting to recent actions by the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors which separately last week began processes that would ban single-use plastic products – decisions that would fall heavily on restaurants.
The City Council approved multiple measures that will expand and strengthen restrictions on disposables to make Los Angeles a zero-waste city. Single-use food ware such as plastic utensils, water bottles and sealed condiment packages would be phased out. The change will first take effect at city venues and events, where reusable items will need to be available instead.
The Bureau of Sanitation will collaborate with vendors to find alternative packaging for prepackaged foods.
Colonna is supportive of the eco-friendly changes but is questioning how compostable containers will hold up when taking on different kinds of foods, a concern shared by Madelyn Alfano, the chief executive and owner of Maria’s Italian Kitchen, which has eight locations in Los Angeles County.
Alfano, who was chair of the California Restaurant Association in 2020, used spaghetti marinara as an example of a dish that would be partly absorbed by compostable containers, making for less appetizing leftovers.
Alfano wishes that, moving forward, the city would reach out to include the voice of restaurant operators and manufacturers before approving measures such as the ones passed recently.
“There has to be more conversations about how this can be done. This problem has been around for a long time. They just haven’t come together and talked about the solutions for it,” Alfano said, adding, “Plastic manufacturers will be on that call and restaurants will be on that call and legislators, if they really care about their constituents, will be on that call.”
Alfano added that she believes there is good intent behind the incoming changes, but that a lack of communication between the city and restaurant owners has compounded preexisting problems.
“It’s really a challenge,” she said. “Business has been so hard these last several years, and the margins are so tight in the restaurant industry. People do not realize how tight the margins are.”
Colonna emphasized a need for the city to guide and accommodate restaurant operators when changes are being phased in. “As long as we have the options and support in a reasonable time period, I think overall, it’s a good thing,” he said.
Colonna and Alfano also expressed concern about the cost and supply chain logistics of alternatives to single-use plastics, a factor that concerned Tracy Hernandez, the founding chief executive of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, a business advocacy group.
Hernandez said the changes are overshadowing more important issues and putting pressure on restaurants that are already facing challenges such as supply chain disruptions and inflation. “The timing is terrible. We can visit it down the road but right now, it’s just not realistic,” she said.
“Colleagues, our future in Los Angeles is plastics free,” City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said in a council meeting. “Our phase out of single-use plastics has been underway for years now through the plastic bag ban of about nine years ago, to straws upon request about four years ago and plastic utensils upon request just last year.”
All city departments will have to devise “zero waste” plans by the end of September under the orders, which will also require city employees to undergo zero waste training next year.
Harry Semerdjian, the senior manager of public policy for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said at the meeting that while the chamber supports eliminating waste, the policies will impact employees and customers negatively.
Further eco-friendly measures were approved recently by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which passed an ordinance that will require single-use food ware such as takeout containers, cups and utensils to be compostable and recyclable, while also banning the use of polystyrene products, or Styrofoam.
The ordinance passed by the board will take effect in May of next year and only applies to unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, which had a population of about 1 million.
Business organizations such as the Valley Industry & Commerce Association have made calls to reform the ordinance.
“You can get 1,000 plastic forks for the same price as 140 compostable ones,” VICA President Stuart Waldman wrote. “The slight chance that we might be helping the environment isn’t worth the guarantee that we’re harming the food service industry.”
Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for conservation nonprofit Oceana, said that “Every year local governments in California spend more than $420 million to clean up and prevent plastic waste from entering the ocean and other waterways.”