Thursday, March 24, 2022

Takeout containers take on eco-friendly form

 By Elijah Robinson and Thomas Tedesco

            Fat Bob’s employee, Pat Eagan holds one of the biodegradable food containers that the restaurant has switched over to because of the plastic foam ban in New York state.

Fat Bob's employee Pat Eagan with biodegradable container

            Walking into any West Side restaurat, those takeout containers stacked behind the bar or on the table have a different look than in previous years. 

            During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurants had to close their dining rooms and their business was kept alive with takeout orders loaded in plastic foam containers.

            At the pandemic’s onset, however, legislation was brought up and subsequently passed to ban these foam containers in the 2020 state budget. 

            After taking effect on Jan. 1, nearly all businesses were prohibited from using packaging made of polystyrene, which is also commonly known as Styrofoam.

            Since several restaurants used this type of material with their takeout food containers, they were one of the most highly impacted businesses because of the statewide ban.

            Although the ban has posed some additional challenges, several local restaurants are supportive of the recent legislation.

            West Side restaurants, such as Fat Bob’s Smokehouse, 41 Virginia Place, have opted to alternatively use biodegradable containers in place of plastic foam.

            The restaurant has been using the biodegradable containers for about two years, which is around the time the legislation for the ban was first passed.

            “When the Styrofoam ban did hit, we were already kind of ahead of the bandwagon so that was very helpful on our end,” M.J. McEwan, catering and events manager, said.

            McEwan also mentioned that the decision was largely supported by the staff.

            “It was actually a more employee driven demand, because we wanted to become more eco-friendly,” she said.

McEwan, on replacing plastic foam containers:

            According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the main enforcer of the ban, plastic foam has several negative environmental impacts since it cannot be recycled.

            Foam packaging is one of the top contributors of environmental litter, causing negative impacts to wildlife, waterways and other natural resources, as well as littering our communities and natural areas,” according to the department website.

            Other restaurant owners, such as Shawntorrian Travis, who owns Lloyal’s Famous Lasagna, 1122 Elmwood Ave., said that plastic foam is not the best way to sell or carry his product.

            Instead of foam, Travis opted to use plastic containers to serve his lasagna. While the restaurant opened after the plastic foam ban went into effect on Feb. 1, he mentioned that he did not care for it in his previous years in the restaurant industry.

            “I think they’re cheap. I like my stuff to be really upscale, because presentation is everything,” Travis said.

            The restaurant industry, however, is not the only one to be impacted by the ban. -

            In addition to takeout food containers, plastic foam is also used to make loose-fill packaging, which is also commonly referred to as packing peanuts.

            This also has a significant impact on businesses that store or ship larger or fragile products.

            Abino Mills Glassworks, 255 Delaware Ave, has primarily been using a biodegradable version of packing peanuts for shipping glass products.

            “The peanuts that are made out of corn starch are a great answer,” Co-owner Connie Constantine said.

            Constantine also said the store employees are  trying to reuse as much packaging as possible and that the only time they preferred to use traditional packing peanuts made of plastic foam was to use up ones given to them by their peers.

            “I’ve never had to buy peanuts,” she said. “Everybody’s getting packages and stuff. Getting all these peanuts, what the hell do you do with them? So I say, ‘I’ll take ‘em’.”

            These biodegradable options, however, are more costly for businesses.

            According to Webstaurant Store, a restaurant supply company, a case of 200 plastic foam containers costs about $40, while the same quantity of biodegradable containers costs about $49. These costs add up overtime for business owners.

            “Unfortunately, because of production issues and shipping issues, I think that the price has probably tripled since the pandemic,” McEwan said.

            She said that to offset the rising costs of packaging, Fat Bob’s has charged an additional fee for its takeout order products, such as the disposable silverware.

            “We are definitely keeping it in mind of how to be greener and how to decrease our footprint with our to-go products,” McEwan said.