Saturday, January 28, 2023

This local restaurant hasn’t emptied a single trash bin in seven months

Cherry Gibbs (right) holds containers of rubber bands and plastic ties her daughter, Kelsey, saves in order to reuse the products at Sealevel City Vegan Diner. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Cherry Gibbs (right) holds containers of rubber bands and twist ties her daughter, Kelsey (left), saves in order to reuse the products at Sealevel City Vegan Diner. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — Since (re)opening in March, Sealevel City Vegan Diner employees have painstakingly diverted every possible ounce of waste away from two small trash cans to be recycled or composted.

The efforts have left the all-natural diner with just one trash bin out back that’s finally nearly full — after collecting seven months of waste.

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Looking at the bin, diner owner Kelsey Gibbs doesn’t feel a sense of pride. “It’s too much,” she said. Still, she acknowledges how unusual her efforts are within an industry that produces so much waste. “It’s good. People tell me it’s good. But I don’t know anything else. I come from such low waste on a personal level, so this is a large volume of trash for me.” 

A self-described “crazy-no-plastic lady,” Gibbs already embodied a recycling lifestyle through her business, The Wonder Shop, a vintage store she ran on Front Street from 2011 through summer 2020.

“When we transitioned into restaurant land, I had no idea how bad it was,” she said. “The restaurant industry and food service, in general, is very trashy, as far as how much waste we produce.”

When opening Sealevel, the first move Gibbs made was to repurpose all but one of the restaurant’s trash cans into compost bins. There are only two trash containers in the entire restaurant: an 8-gallon can in the kitchen and a small bin reserved for feminine products in the women’s restroom.

Every Sunday, her crew (comprising her husband, Scott Key, her mom, Cherry, and the cook and waitstaff) makes recycling trips. They take soft plastics — bags, wraps, etc. — to the UNCW recycling center. Cardboard, which tends to build up quickly in the back of Gibbs’ van, gets dropped off at the county’s recycling center on Wrightsville Beach (the county accepts cardboard, but it’s so bulky it’s more convenient for the team to clear space than to allow the material to take up room in a bin).

A secret dream of Gibbs’ is to patrol the recycling centers with a visor, clipboard and whistle to ensure clearly marked directions are being followed. Frequently, boxes aren’t broken down properly or plastic bags end up where they aren’t supposed to.

“Oh, it’s a huge pain in the ass,” she said of the weekly routine. “If everybody’s doing it and there’s a process set, it’s not so bad.”

If there’s community and business buy-in up the supply chain, Gibbs said the process would be more manageable. “I really think if people saw the waste and knew the facts that they would be compassionate towards it,” she said. “Same deal with food and animals.”

“They’ve taken so much oil and so much resources to create a disposable thing that lasts 10 minutes,” she said. “What a waste all-around”

Sealevel City Vegan Diner owner Kelsey Gibbs looks at a bin of trash her restaurant hasn’t emptied out since May. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

The county’s role

Wilmington Compost Company, which launched in 2018, picks up Sealevel’s scraps. It provides food for Huckleberry, New Hanover County’s in-vessel composter that lives at the landfill and makes mulch for public parks and gardens.

The county bought the composter as part of a pilot program with the eventual goal of expanding its services, potentially to residential customers. For now, Wilmington Compost Company is the only service that delivers compost to the landfill. Though she loves the company’s services, in theory, Gibbs said she thinks the city or county should take on the role of providing compost pick-up to encourage waste diversion.

Though Huckleberry had a hunger spree after it first arrived, operating at just one-fourth of its capacity in 2018, it’s now running full speed, according to Joe Suleyman, New Hanover County’s director of environmental management. While the pandemic dried up a steady stream of Huckleberry’s scraps from UNCW’s dining hall, deliveries from residential and commercial customers of Wilmington Compost Company have kept it full. Plus, the county’s mobile HazWagon added compost delivery to its services, delivering 300 pounds a week to Huckleberry.

The county’s waste audits consistently show about 70% of the material that ends up in the landfill could have been recycled or composted, Suleyman said.

The county’s recycling center is only capable of processing #1 and #2 plastics (the lower the number, the thinner the plastic). A dedicated crew spends hours sorting out plastics and other materials that can’t be recycled along the center’s assembly line. Unwanted materials (especially plastic bags) take up man hours and can clog machines, highlighting the need for the public to understand what’s locally recyclable and what isn’t.

“With China’s import ban still in effect, coupled with very low crude oil prices, the market for plastics #3 – #7 is still very weak,” Suleyman explained.

Gibbs said she hangs on to thicker plastics, unsure of what to do with them yet.

“We’ve got to redo our packaging and shipping situation to use better materials that aren’t going to be around after we die. We’re using disposable things that are going to be around way long after we die. That makes no sense,” she said.

Bins in the women's restroom at Sealevel City Vegan Diner are dedicated to composting. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)
Bins in the women’s restroom at Sealevel City Vegan Diner are dedicated to composting paper towels. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Pandemic-induced waste

Sealevel’s lack of trash isn’t due to a lack of customers. Like any other restaurant, the diner has struggled; it opened just one week before pandemic restrictions hit. Gibbs revived the restaurant nine months after it shuttered, kept its former owner and chef Nikki Spears’ main menu items, parsed out any non-vegan options, and spruced up the interior with a retro-mod feel.

As a “new” business, Gibbs was unable to tap into any public financial assistance that helped keep many restaurants afloat. She still has no sense of what normal, non-Covid numbers look like.

But the pressure hasn’t altered her mindset toward reducing waste. The price of nitrile gloves (compostable gloves aren’t functional, Gibbs said) has skyrocketed; still, Gibbs collects used ones in a plastic bucket. Once she collects enough to fill a large box, she’ll shell out a few hundred dollars to pay a specialty company to recycle them.

Compostable to-go boxes, a new necessary evil, cost about twice as much as their non-degradable counterparts. Before the pandemic, Gibbs’ plan was to require customers to bring their own to-go materials, which staff could place plated food in.

She said she hopes more customers and businesses realize that compostable to-go materials don’t properly degrade if they’re thrown in the trash — they must be composted in order to degrade. “People think biodegradable and compostable are interchangeable,” she said.

They aren’t.

Some businesses, hurt by unplanned expense increases and revenue dips, have adopted Covid-19 surcharges to cope. Gibbs hasn’t once offset the excess costs (Covid-19 compliance or waste avoidance) onto her customers. It’s frequently at the top of her mind. “I’ve been thinking about that every week,” she said of re-costing the menu.

Cherry Gibbs (left) stands among piles of cardboard, which Sealevel delivers weekly to local recycling centers. The restaurant drops off soft plastics at the UNCW recylcing center, one of the few locations in the area to accept this type of material. (Port City Daily photos/Courtesy Kelsey Gibbs)

‘It just takes the boss to care’

A major source of waste, Gibbs said, comes from suppliers.

“I’m trying to figure out how to talk to US Foods and be like, ‘About those onion bags: What’s up with that?'” she said.

She said she likes how Kind Cultures, which supplies her vegan sour cream, handles deliveries: They’ll give her a new jar, and Sealevel will give back the old jar they just finished using.

“You gotta look at the big scheme. We’re just junking up our own home and we’re not being very neighborly to all the other species that have to live with us on this planet,” she said. “What we did individually made a difference. It made the mess. So what we do individually, we can certainly get out of it.”

Gibbs doesn’t have a definitive solution to solving society’s problems with excess disposables. Though she believes talking about it is a good place to start.

“I think what I’m doing is totally manageable and totally doable, and it could apply to much bigger companies and facilities. It just takes the boss to care. It just takes customers, employees, and bosses just to talk about it more,” she said.

“I don’t know what the answer is. But this is messy,” she said.

Sealevel City Vegan Diner owner Kelsey Gibbs walks through the kitchen with one of the restaurant’s only trash containers. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com

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