Foam containers in restaurants are going the way of incandescent light bulbs: They can still be found, but their once ubiquitous presence is quickly fading.
Many Twin Cities eateries have chucked the white stuff in favor of newer, eco-friendly products. So as the city of Minneapolis joins dozens of U.S. cities in renewing its ban on polystyrene foam, often called Styrofoam, a lot of restaurant owners and managers say they are already prepared or are looking into greener options to meet next year’s deadline.
“I have not had a call from any restaurant saying, ‘We can’t do it,’ ” said Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association. “Not all restaurants have prepared for the changes, but we have enough time.”
The ordinance, part of a goal to be a zero-waste city, will go into effect in April 2015 and is a revision to a 25-year-old rule banning difficult-to-recycle materials. The guidelines mandate that restaurants, food trucks, grocery stores and event vendors only offer food in products that are easily recyclable, compostable or reusable.
The Brothers Deli in the downtown skyway saw the change coming and wanted to be greener, so it recently switched to baskets with tissue for dine-in orders. But owner Jeff Burstein isn’t quite sure what he will use to replace the 1,000 polystyrene takeout containers the deli uses in a week, and predicts he may have to raise prices 25 cents per entree to offer other options.
“The alternatives are triple the cost of Styrofoam,” he said, adding that despite its economic advantages, foam “isn’t very appealing.”
Coping with cost
Restaurants complain of a number of drawbacks to polystyrene foam, including that it doesn’t prevent spills and usually doesn’t vent well, leaving food soggy. And environmentalists have assailed it for years because it is not easily biodegradable.
On the other hand, proponents note that it’s a good insulator and is a cheaper way to go for mom-and-pop shops.
Indeed, cost is the main reason many restaurants still go with foam. Smaller, quick-serve places typically operate on thin margins and don’t want to pay extra for plastic and paper-based options.
Such eateries say the change will force them to raise menu prices as they switch to greener alternatives. Or they may tack on a small service charge on takeout orders. Others say they will absorb the price increase.
Keys Cafe & Bakery in downtown Minneapolis has been experimenting with paper alternatives for the 500 polystyrene takeout boxes it goes through in a week. Joe Schlarbaum, the general manager, said the substitutes are “strong and nice” but more expensive, so he’s still contemplating how to cope with the higher prices.
“We’re not sure that we want to go down the road of tacking on a surcharge for takeout,” he said, adding that an overall menu price increase is more likely.
Mesa Pizza Dinkytown doesn’t generally use foam containers except for single to-go slices. But manager Nato Coles said the business is not worried about having to find something else to replace it.
“Everybody at Mesa is solidly behind a citywide ban on Styrofoam containers because it puts nobody at a competitive disadvantage and does good for the environment,” he said.
City Council Member Andrew Johnson, who sponsored the measure, said many restaurants are already complying with the decades-old policy. He noted that other cities with bans haven’t been met with opposition from restaurants claiming financial hardship.
Most costs for restaurants come from labor, facilities, equipment and food, Johnson said. Food packaging might account for 1 or 2 percent, he said.
And while restaurants have been curtailing their use of foam, Johnson said there still are as many as 10 million polystyrene containers in Minneapolis’ waste system each year.
A study for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found last year that about 1 percent of the state’s trash by weight was polystyrene.
Under the revised ordinance, city health and food inspectors will be required to check for Styrofoam, and the public will be able to report violations on the city’s website. Violators will have to pay an administrative fee.
As more cities have adopted bans on foam, some of the large chains have adjusted, too.
McDonald’s announced last year that it would replace foam coffee cups with paper ones. Dunkin’ Donuts has been testing a paper coffee cup and said it hopes to introduce an alternative cup within a couple of years.
Golden Valley-based Buffalo Wild Wings stopped using foam takeout containers on the West Coast in 2006 when it opened a restaurant in Portland, Ore., where foam had already been banned. The chain switched to using paper takeout containers at all of its restaurants two years later.
A spokeswoman said the chain’s restaurant by the University of Minnesota will change some other packaging — beverage and soup containers, for example — as a result of the Minneapolis ordinance.
Famous Dave’s of America only uses foam containers for its doggy bags at locations that don’t have bans, said Jeff Abramson, vice president of purchasing for the Minnetonka-based company. The chain will have to find alternatives for its Calhoun Square location, but figures it will be a negligible price increase.
“It’s usually more expensive, but it’s a pretty low-use item,” he said.
Jim Moss, sales director at Packaging Sales Inc. in Plymouth, said that while using an alternative to polystyrene may triple the cost from 10 cents to 30 cents, it can be hidden in the cost of a $9, $12 or $15 dinner.
One good alternative is polypropylene, which most consumers know as a rotisserie chicken container, he said. And prices on that are coming down. It cost 50 to 60 cents apiece 10 years ago, but it’s 30 cents now and a far superior product, Moss said.
“Restaurants do not have to be in a state of chaos about this,” he said.
Kian Salehi, co-owner of Bite Squad, the restaurant delivery service in the Twin Cities, decided to use more environmentally friendly containers when the business launched in 2012. Foam containers can melt when hot food is placed in them and there’s the spillage issue, he said.
“Containers today are much better in terms of design. They don’t fog, they have a clear top, they can be reheated in the same container, and you can use a knife to cut food in them,” Salehi said. “The cost is more but they work so much better than Styrofoam.”
Donna Fahs, Parasole Restaurant Holdings’ chief operating officer, said most of the company’s restaurants including Chino Latino and Mozza Mia use corn starch-based compostable products. The company hasn’t used Styrofoam containers for years, she said. “The public perception of them is wretched.”