Every time I eat at restaurants, I observe how takeout orders or unfinished dinners are packaged to be taken away by customers. As a conservation-minded person, I am well aware of how bad Styrofoam packaging, used by most restaurants, is for the environment. So I decided to look into the why behind this choice.
Styrofoam, a registered trademark, is a foam polystyrene form of packaging that was invented in the United States by a Dow Chemical scientist searching for a light and strong plastic product. His result, which is 98 percent air and 2 percent plastic–primarily benzene, a petroleum product, and pentane, a known carcinogen–was patented in 1944 as Styrofoam, the name by which this and similar products are generally known. (I use Styrofoam throughout the column for convenience because most people recognize this trademark for all products actually made from extruded polystyrene foam.)
It is a relatively cheap product to buy, thus making it an attractive option for businesses, especially food businesses. Styrofoam takes years to decompose, some scientists say up to 100 years, and it is generally not accepted by recycling facilities except for those specifically geared to handle the product. This results in Styrofoam entering landfills, where it reportedly takes up more space than any other product. (See the “Cradle to Grave” summary below.)
Last Tuesday, my wife, Bibi, brought me lunch from a local restaurant we often frequent – Turtle Shack, on North Oceanshore Blvd., where we have enjoyed meals since it opened 12 years ago. The current owners shocked me Tuesday when I opened the bag containing our lunches.
The food containers were not Styrofoam! They were brown, 100 percent recycled paperboard. Yes, 100 percent recycled paper. On the bottom of the boxes I read: Bio-Plus Earth® #3, a company’s website, a patent number, and an endorsement from the Green Restaurant Association. Now, this was what I have been looking for in my own quixotic way.
Bibi told me Danny Niday, one of the Turtle Shack owners, said they had switched from Styrofoam to recycled paper products about a week before. I decided to learn more about their decision and planned to stop in on my way to a commission meeting that evening.
I interviewed co-owners Danny Niday and his fiancée Andrea Figliolini, as Chef Craig Niday, Danny’s brother, prepared for the evening meal. My first question to the young couple was, “What was your motivation to switch from Styrofoam to 100 percent recycled paper product?”
Danny’s quick response: “We had a dinner guest from California who told us we really needed to get rid of the Styrofoam boxes and, after a quick trip to her car, showed them a sample of the 100 percent recycled paperboard box. Now, that’s my kind of conservation-minded person – someone who carries a paper box with her 3,000 miles away from home.”
“Was that the only reason? One person’s comment?” I asked.
“No,” Andrea said, “we have had several customers, including you, who have asked us to find a way to replace Styrofoam product. And we have been looking at different alternatives.”
The company Danny and Andrea chose is Fold-Pak, a division of Rock Tenn, with plants in Pennsylvania, Georgia and California. All of its products are produced from 100 percent recycled paper product and they are made in the United States. Designed for hot or cold, wet or dry food, Fold-Pak’s products cost more than Styrofoam containers, but to those restaurateurs like Danny and Andrea, cost didn’t matter as much as a social conscience. (The Flagler Fish Company, also a Flagler Beach restaurant, makes a point of its use of green-friendly containers in its operations.)
As Danny explained to me, “It’s the cost of doing business as a conservation-conscious food business and I found it easy to decide, especially because our business is right here on the beach.” He said this as he looked appreciatively at the sparkling ocean across the street.
Andrea added, “We already switched from Styrofoam cups to eco-friendly cups, and we’re going to switch our napkins and cutlery for takeout foods to recyclable products, too.”
I asked them about the financial aspects of going with the Fold-Pak product line, and they both agreed that, while the cost per container is 15 cents higher, it was worth it to know that the customer can easily recycle the box through neighborhood recycling programs. The boxes do not require special treatment, as do Styrofoam products. In fact, one of the few businesses that encourages its customers to return Styrofoam products for recycling is the Publix Supermarket chain. I suspect that most people simply throw the Styrofoam packaging into their trash, thereby sending it into the landfill to languish for years before it finally breaks down to enter the ground and water below.
While giant food chain McDonald’s switched from Styrofoam to recycled paper in 1986, I figured it had the volume and financial assets to empower such a move. Turtle Shack’s example of conservation conscience struck me as a positive and brave move by a small, Flagler Beach business concerned about the quality of life where it serves the public. I asked Danny if he had any doubts about the decision to go green. His response was simple and direct: “This is the most environmentally responsible area we have ever lived in and we believe our customers will like the switch we made. The cost to do this is worth it, and we think our current and potential customers will appreciate that we care about Flagler Beach and what we have here.”
I believe he is right.
If you know of other local restaurants that have made the switch from Styrofoam to recycled paper, write a brief note to me (or tell us in the comments) and I will feature them in a future column. In the meantime, be well and find something you can do to make a difference on behalf of nature.