Plastic is cheap, but it’s also costly.
Though inexpensive to buy and produce, plastics take up to 1,000 years to break down in landfills, where they degrade into particles that contaminate soil and water. In Raleigh, as in other cities, you’ll find plastic in plenty of restaurants, bars and other food businesses, where customers and employees often dispose of cups, to-go containers, and forks and spoons improperly instead of recycling them. But recently, several local businesses have realized the staggering effects of using plastics; as a result, they’ve switched to more sustainable alternatives, such as compostable containers and cups, reusable utensils and plateware, and metal or bamboo straws, among other initiatives.
Raleigh Raw, which opened downtown in 2015, has used compostable materials from the start. Leslie Woods, Raleigh Raw’s co-founder and director of operations, opened the café using 100 percent compostables for consumer products, including corn-based utensils, to-go cups and containers for food, all supplied by local distributor CompostNow.
Woods says that, at first, there was debate among her team members over the initiative; while the café offered all compostable products, how could they be sure customers were actually going to compost them once they left the store?
“If they’re going to leave, you can’t be sure it’s going to be composted, but you’re giving them the option to,” says Kat Nigro, the head of marketing at CompostNow. “Raleigh Raw is creating a business model for the world they want to live in, and that’s so important. What they’re saying is, ‘we’re going to use this compostable material because we’re going to assume that you compost, because everybody should be composting.’”
CompostNow is the primary distributor that many Raleigh businesses turn to to obtain compostable products, along with accompanying composting services. Every eco-product it sells is certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, a third party that ensures products are compostable and will break down within a certain time frame, usually around three months. Nigro explains that any product can claim to be “biodegradable,” as everything is going to break down eventually—but the longer something takes to break down, the more methane it emits.
The Pharmacy Café, another of CompostNow’s clients, has seen a significant decrease in its methane emissions thanks to its use of compostables and composting services. According to Nigro, since the business started working with CompostNow in late 2015, it has avoided releasing 3,804 pounds of methane and diverted 29,265 pounds of waste into compost instead.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What other thing can we be doing to make ourselves stand out, besides just being a service?’” says Daniel Whittaker, The Pharmacy Café’s co-owner.
The Pharmacy Café’s compostable cups, utensils and clam shells are disposed of in compost bins, which CompostNow drivers pick up. CompostNow converts the waste into soil that is then divided up among its garden partners, including Raleigh City Farm, where The Pharmacy Café, the farm’s neighbor, also sources much of its produce.
Another sustainability proponent is Dram & Draught, which made a drastic change a year ago when the bar completely eliminated all plastic materials in an effort to decrease its ecological footprint. Co-founders Kevin Barrett and Drew Schenck bought leather coasters and stainless steel straws, which are cleaned and used over and over. Though these products incurred a one-time expense, the duo says paying the extra money up front was worth it.
Sharon May, owner of Relish Craft Kitchen & Bourbon Bar, also takes pride in the initiatives her restaurant is taking to reduce waste and increase sustainability. Relish uses compostable takeout boxes, recyclable coffee lids and tupperware-like to-go containers that customers can reuse for food storage. Earlier this year, Relish made the switch to compostable straws.
Additionally, Relish uses CompostNow’s composting service. Since joining the program in 2013, Relish has diverted approximately 43,469 pounds of food scraps, producing 10,867 pounds of rich compost and avoiding releasing 5,651 pounds of methane at the landfill.
“The steps we have taken have cost more money, but I am a firm believer in the effort,” says May. “I realized long ago that since, as a business, I serve over 700 customers each day, I can make a much larger contribution to it all than most people can do on an individual household basis.”
Other Raleigh eateries and cafés that work with CompostNow include The Morning Times, Trophy Brewing, Fiction Kitchen, Midtown Grille, Bida Manda and many others.
“These businesses were willing to pay that extra cost because they truly believe in the impact that it makes,” says Nigro. “It’s so easy to go with the easiest and cheapest option, but they’re being more thoughtful and want to be more sustainable.