NEW HANOVER COUNTY – Restaurants and small businesses carried plenty of weight in 2020, from barely covering rent with few paying customers to disruptions in the global supply chain, leading to spikes in operational costs.
After Gov. Roy Cooper ordered eateries and bars to shut down sit-down service in late March 2020, businesses became dependent upon takeout or delivery – orders that required lots and lots of plastic.
Ocean Friendly Establishments (OFE) volunteers were taking note, but they understood. Since 2015, OFE has granted certifications to 240 establishments that are committed to cutting out plastic and considering sustainability throughout their operations.
“To keep their businesses afloat, they had to convert to mostly take out,” said Bonnie Monteleone, executive director of Plastic Ocean Project, OFE’s parent organization. “They were losing ground with being ocean-friendly . . . and it wasn’t by choice; it was by survival.”
While rebounding from the pandemic, many of these establishments are continuing to honor their promises to the Earth. Volunteers didn’t want that perseverance to go unrecognized.
In February, OFE representatives took an electric Chevrolet on a 230-mile, zero-emissions trek to deliver 6-foot, $1,000 checks to seven recipients of OFE’s “Give Back Grant,” a partnership with the N.C. Aquarium Society and the Plastic Ocean Project. The funds will go toward implementing or reviving ocean-friendly practices in 2021.
An OFE committee judged applications and chose winners who detailed the most creative plans that would make the greatest impact on the community and the sea. Applicants’ names were blacked out during the judging process to ensure fairness.
Restaurant recipients included Adapt Kitchen and Juice Bar, Rx Restaurant and Bar, Slice of Life Pizzeria and Pub, SharkBites Snack Bar at the Fort Fisher Aquarium and Wrightsville Beach Brewery.
Adapt Kitchen and Juice Bar in Wrightsville Beach is putting the money toward the launch of its new composting program. It’s selling a limited number of composting bins, along with six months of Wilmington Compost Company services, for $99. Normally, that price would be $150.
Customers can order the bucket on Adapt’s online ordering portal and pick it up in the store. They’ll automatically be signed up for Wilmington Compost services to collect the food waste and compostable materials from their homes.
“We are now trying to make it as easy as somebody buying a latte curbside, without having to do anything,” said Adapt co-owner Chris Curry.
Adapt participates in the program too. Each week the restaurant fills up to two regular-sized green trash cans with compostable materials. That’s 450 to 750 pounds of waste that are diverted from the landfill and instead produced into a compost source that’s distributed to local farmers and gardeners.
The cafe diverts scraps from juicing and blending smoothies, as well as hand towels and anything else that can be broken down. The restaurateurs and their employees don’t serve any menu items in plastic – only products made of polylactic acid, which is manufactured from corn starch and biodegrades over time.
Adapt is a five-star certified OFE, the highest-ranking given in the program. Curry said he and his wife/business partner are both from the beach and feel called to protect it.
“I’ve traveled to places that are gorgeous, and they’re polluted, and you’re going, ‘This is painful,’” Curry said. “I never, ever, ever want to see – and I won’t stand for it – this town to go in that direction. I’ll stand up against people and say, ‘Look, you have access to it. Don’t tell me you can’t do it. It’s just a matter of how can you make it work.’”
Rx Restaurant and Bar, another five-star OFE on Castle Street in Wilmington, plans to use the grant to continue its current practices in its take-out orders, said owner James Doss. Rx uses compostable boxes, soup cups, ramekins, utensils, bags and cake boxes when packing meals for carryout.
Doss said the restaurant composts all food waste, recycles everything it can, and steers clear of plastic as much as possible – all in an effort to minimize its carbon footprint and operate greener.
“We are an extremely low-waste restaurant,” Doss continued. “Any single-use disposables such as straws and to-go containers that we use are compostable and given out only if requested.”
Restaurants are discovering new ways to be eco-friendly when filling to-go orders. Some are including the list of available supplies on their online ordering system. Customers can request what supplies they need, like condiments and disposable utensils, rather than staff throwing items in the bag, potentially allowing them to go to waste.
“That is a positive shift that’s happening because of Covid and because of OFEs,” Monteleone said.
Originally, OFE was solely a “skip the straw” initiative. Participants in the program would only serve diners straws upon request, rather than automatically placing them on the table. OFE has expanded since then to influence businesses to reduce plastic in all aspects.
Establishments can work their way up from one- to five-star designations based on how many boxes they can check on OFE’s list of ocean-friendly practices. The criteria includes no styrofoam, vegan menu options, air dryers in bathrooms and participating in an “adopt” beach access or highway program.
“People are proud to be an ocean-friendly establishment and that’s what you want,” Monteleone said. “You want some pride in your work and to know that people appreciate it as well. Your patrons appreciate it. That’s when you know you’re going in the right direction.”
The establishments are not just restaurants, cafes and breweries, either. Chandra Botanicals Community Apothecary and Healing Arts in Atlantic Beach received a grant to help it reach its goal of eliminating 80% of plastics from its packaging and marketing materials by March 2021.
“The reason why we use the word ‘establishment’ and not ‘restaurant’ is because we wanted to cast a wider net,” Monteleone said. “By doing so, we now have a church and schools and yoga centers and different businesses that wouldn’t be able to express that they’re trying to reduce their use of single-use plastics, and because they can get that distinction, it also inspires them to try to even reduce more.”
Trinity United Methodist Church in Southport is also a recipient. It’s making the conscious transition to sustainable products at its events.
“You wouldn’t even think, like, ocean-friendly what? Church?” Monteleone said. “I mean, think about how much waste churches have when they have any kind of activity or celebration or meeting where they’re giving out food and coffee, and how much of it is usually single-use.”
Plans to seek funds for more grants are underway. Monteleone believes this first round was a success and will help OFE secure more grant opportunities in the future.
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