COVID-19 has put sustainability in the food industry on hold, but advocates say it’s not a lost cause

Zero-waste supporters believe this time of tumultuous change can be an opportunity for growth.

With dine-in service closed, restaurants like Sobo Ramen in Oakland, are using a lot more single-use plastic foodware for takeout. Photo: Pete Rosos

On a recent Saturday morning, Sara Heady and Vanessa Pope, co-founders of Oakland’s zero-waste grocery store MudLab and the sustainability nonprofit For Here Please, picked up over 800 pieces of trash on a four-block stretch of Lake Merritt along Lakeshore Avenue. “There was just so much trash,” Pope said. Heady and Pope organize trash pickups weekly at the lake.

A lot of the debris they encountered that morning was related to food – plastic and paper bags that once carried takeout fare or groceries, plastic forks, clamshell containers, pizza boxes, cups, cans and bottles.

The to-go trash has doubled with the pandemic since that’s all restaurants can do.

“The to-go trash has doubled with the pandemic since that’s all restaurants can do,” Pope said.

The COVID-19 crisis and the Bay Area-wide shelter-in-place orders disrupted the growing sustainability movement in the food industry, one that championed compostable and reusable containers. Since March 16, when the lockdown discontinued dine-in service across the Bay Area, many restaurants transformed into takeout only operations, requiring owners to set aside reusable dishware and stock up on single-use containers. By the end of March, social distancing protocols in the Bay Area barred customers from bringing their own bags, mugs or other reusable items into essential businesses. Berkeley, which has its own Public Health Department, has since upheld that ban. Alameda County’s shelter-in place-order, meanwhile, bans customers from placing “their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home on any surfaces.”

Even once restaurants are permitted to reopen for dine-in service, California’s COVID-19 restaurant guidelines encourage the use of disposable items, including menus and utensils, in the case when “proper cleaning of reusable items is infeasible.”

But advocates of the zero-waste movement, that is, people who try to minimize creating trash, refuse to accept a major increase in single-use plastics as a new normal and are trying to identify how to keep reusables, well, usable.

Vanessa Pope at MudLab.
Vanessa Pope, co-founder of zero-waste grocery store MudLab and sustainability nonprofit For Here Please. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Heady and Pope — who are moving MudLab from Telegraph Avenue to the space formerly occupied by Perch Coffee House on Grand Avenue — have been working with restaurants to try services like Dispatch Goods, which distributes food from restaurants to customers in reusable ware, picks the foodware up at a later date, sanitizes it and then starts the whole process over again. According to Dispatch Goods CEO Lindsey Hoell, the company is currently working with seven restaurants, down from 12 before the pandemic.

“We’re trying to make the experience of being sustainable easy for people, but it’s not easy,” said Pope, and that is especially true now. “You’ve got your mask, now you’ve got your hand sanitizer — Do you also remember your reusable mug and figure out a way to use it?” she asked. “It’s impossible.”

In Berkeley, Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, which runs the city’s residential recycling and the farmers markets, also said he sees “a lot more takeout foodware.” The Ecology Center is processing, he estimates, around 25% more recyclables from residential areas than before the pandemic.

Starting Sept. 18, customers at participating Berkeley businesses can choose a reusable stainless steel cup for their to-go beverage. Photo: Vessel/Facebook
The Ecology Center hopes to bring back stainless steel Vessel cups to Berkeley once shelter-in-place orders allow businesses to accept reusable foodware. Photo: Vessel/Facebook

Bourque thinks now is the time to reaffirm reusables in restaurants, rather than shy away from them. When shelter-in-place regulations relax to allow it, he plans to bring back and expand Vessel, a program that provides reusable stainless steel cups to restaurants for to-go orders. Customers are expected to drop off used Vessel cups in bins, so that the company can pick them up, sanitize and redistribute them. The Ecology Center, Vessel and the city of Berkeley started a nine-month pilot program in September 2019, but the pilot was paused when Berkeley’s shelter-in-place order went into effect.

Rather than defaulting back to disposables, Bourque said he’d like to see people “thinking about it the other way – how do we make it work and be safe?”

For Bourque, projects like Vessel are important because they reflect an ethos of “reduce, reuse, recycle with recycle being the last option.” Vessel is part of Berkeley’s efforts to implement the Single Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, which took effect January 1, and requires businesses to use compostable takeaway food packaging and charge customers 25-cents per disposable cup.

A sign at Trader Joe's in Emeryville explains that reusable bags are not permitted while the shelter-in-place order is in effect. Photo: Sarah Han
A sign at Trader Joe’s in Emeryville says reusable bags are not currently permitted, and that customers will not be charged for paper bags. Photo: Sarah Han

Another significant step back for sustainability since the pandemic has been the resurgence of plastic and paper bags at grocery stores. Reusable bags were banned in the Bay Area at the end of April, when the shelter-in-place orders were first extended. On April 22, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a two-month suspension of the state’s 2016 plastic bag ban to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure for workers engaged in essential activities.

Manager at Berkeley Bowl Steve Tsujimoto said he the market is currently offering customers paper bags for free and has avoided using plastic bags due to environmental concerns. But soon, he said, Berkeley Bowl will likely have to introduce plastic bags in the store — at least temporarily — because there is a paper bag shortage and compostable bags don’t come fast enough.

“Now we’re getting desperate,” he said.

Berkeley Bowl currently provides free paper bags but will also pack paid-for groceries into boxes or place items loose into shopping carts for customers to place into reusable bags at their car. Photo: Pete Rosos

Heady of MudLab sees a simple workaround to avoid using either paper or plastic grocery bags with the new rules, if you have a car: wheel your paid-for groceries in a cart to your trunk and bag them in reusable bags there. “Just doing that really eliminates an amount of debris,” she said.

Despite the bans on reusables, People’s Café owner Anson Abdulla and House Kombucha Owner Rana Lehmer-Chang hope to realize their longtime dream of opening up a zero-waste natural food grocery store in Berkeley this summer. They plan to call the store People’s Local Market. Inside the market will be a deli run by Lehmer-Chang called Eternal Foods.

“People are doing rubber gloves, and their facemasks and all the garbage that is being created with this new system of everything disposable,” she said. “Having more zero-waste options in this time can help offset any additional plastic.”

House Kombucha sells honey, maple syrup, oat and almond milk and other products in refillable jars. Photo: House Kombucha
House Kombucha sells bulk ingredients, like honey, olive oil and maple syrup, in refillable jars. Photo: House Kombucha

Lehmer-Chang is not sure yet how she can marry a zero-waste market with the health concerns of the pandemic, but for now, through House Kombucha, is offering products like honey, olive oil and maple syrup in refillable glass jars that can be ordered online for delivery.

Abdulla also values hyperlocal sourcing and they plan to offer products from Bay Area-based producers. “You have to believe in building this community-oriented business now,” he said.

With businesses largely closed during the lockdown, commercial waste has actually decreased. Paul Rosynsky, a communications specialist at Waste Management, said commercial waste has gone down in Oakland, but residential waste has slightly increased. Greg Apa, solid waste and recycling manager of Berkeley’s Zero Waste Division, said residential waste in Berkeley has not changed since the crisis, but overall garbage collection in the city decreased by 7.4%.

Bourque of the Ecology Center is not surprised to hear that waste has gone down in Berkeley since the pandemic. “Typically when we have an economic downturn, waste goes down significantly,” he said.

He hopes this time of tumultuous change can be an opportunity for growth. “Let’s jumpstart the electric car and not jumpstart the gas guzzler,” Bourque said. “We could be thinking about this as an opportunity for a healthy and safe and just future and creating recovery strategies and stimulus strategies that really advance our urgent environmental needs and social justice needs.”