Local restaurants and cafes have spent the last six months swapping out plastic takeout containers and utensils for products that can degrade in the nearby Pacific Ocean.
The Santa Monica City Council adopted an ordinance last August banning all single-use plastic packaging for prepared food and beverages that went into effect January 1. The city began enforcing the ordinance July 1, with a temporary exemption for cups and cup lids because there are few marine degradable versions on the market.
While store managers and corporate leaders said they support the spirit of the policy, which is meant to prevent plastic from polluting the beach and clogging landfills, they said some products have proved harder to replace than others.
Andi Trindle Mersch, director of coffee and sustainability at Philz Coffee, said the market for marine degradable products is not yet developed enough to provide coffee cups, lids and utensils that completely satisfy customers.
Trindle Mersch said the San Francisco-based company has used compostable cups and utensils for several years across its cafes in California, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but it’s been tough to find equivalents that can degrade in the ocean in less than four months, as required by the ordinance.
Philz now uses coffee cup lids made from wood fiber in its downtown Santa Monica location. Although Trindle Mersch likes the feel of the fiber, some customers and employees said sipping hot drinks through the lids leaves a papery taste and cold drinks make them soggy.
“My vision was that I’d like to make these the lids we use across all our stores,” she said. “However, the response was poor enough that we’re keeping them in Santa Monica as a requirement but not rolling them out in other places. It’s kind of a shame that it’s a one-off.”
It’s a similar story with forks, knives and spoons, Trindle Mersch said. Philz is using marine degradable birch utensils in Santa Monica and compostable utensils everywhere else because the birch versions don’t quite pass muster with company leadership, she said.
The real challenge, though, is finding marine degradable lid plugs. Trindle Mersch said she can’t find a manufacturer yet, so she’s looking into using lids that don’t need plugs or simply not offering them.
Ultimately, companies like Philz that maintain a consistent brand across many locations have to worry about customer experience, she said.
“That’s our whole mission. We can’t put out products that customers complain about,” she said. “I’m a true environmentalist, but from a business perspective, I can imagine some businesses being a lot more frustrated by the city rolling out the ordinance without ensuring that consumer-friendly products existed.”
Keeping branding intact while transitioning to marine degradable packaging has also been a concern for poke restaurant Sweetfin, said co-founder Seth Cohen.
The restaurant, which started in Santa Monica and has expanded to nine other locations in Southern California, replaced its plastic bowls with paper-based bowls in all of its locations six months ago. Cohen said it took almost a year to make the transition because the company wanted to emulate the exact size and shape of the packaging that customers had been familiar with for almost four years.
“We had been using a recyclable plastic bowl before, but we had been hearing from guests for a long time that they wanted to see us transition to paper bowls before the Santa Monica plastics ban, so it was already in the works,” Cohen said.
Other than the custom bowls, the transition to marine degradable packaging hasn’t been too difficult, he said. Sweetfin always used paper bags rather than plastics, phased out plastic straws a year ago and has provided wooden or bamboo utensils since the day it opened.
“More and more paper products are coming on the market, which is driving prices down and giving us different options,” he said. “The consumer has spoken, and that’s what they want.”
Cohen added he thinks smaller businesses may find it more daunting to swap out their packaging.
“We have some scale and purchasing power, so we can keep costs down because we’re going through hundreds of thousands of bowls … but if you’re a mom and pop coffee shop, to move over to completely new packaging could be a challenge financially,” he said.
But Jourdan Stephens, the general manager of local favorite Dogtown Coffee, said the switch was relatively easy.
The cafe had already worked with the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants program to make its packaging compostable or recyclable, and its packaging supplier, American Paper and Provisions, has helped find marine degradable products since the ordinance went into effect, Stephens said.
Nicole Gaynor, a sales executive at American Paper and Provisions, said many compostable items are made from polylactic acid (PLA), but PLA products don’t meet Santa Monica’s stronger degradability requirements. She said finding marine degradable packaging that can hold saucy food or drinks without leaking — like PLA products do — is tricky and can hurt a restaurant’s bottom line.
“Our customers are operating in a town where rent and labor is very expensive, and now they’re incurring packaging costs they did not foresee,” she said.
Since the city council adopted the ordinance last August, the city’s office of sustainability and the environment and its affiliate nonprofit Sustainable Works have hosted several workshops on the ordinance and a sustainable food packaging expo, said sustainability analyst Amanda Grossman, who has been spearheading the ordinance.
Sustainable Works is helping some smaller businesses to purchase packaging together so they can benefit from bulk discounts, she said.
“We understand some business may not have changed their packaging in years, so they may not be aware of what’s on the market now,” Grossman said. “We thought it was important to showcase what new products are out there.”
She added the city has also been connecting with the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, providing lists of suppliers and manufacturers on its website and working with businesses one-on-one to answer questions.
Grossman said the city understands that businesses may not yet be able to source affordable, marine degradable packaging that meets all of their needs, which is why it granted a January 2020 extension for cups and cup lids and lets businesses apply to opt-out of providing certain products if they can’t find reasonable alternatives.
The city has received 21 applications so far, several of which are from different locations of the same business. Grossman said many restaurants are asking for exemptions for large catering containers.
“Caterers heat aluminum trays over a Bunsen burner, and you can’t really have a fiber product over a fire,” she said. “We recognize that’s functionally difficult.”
The city has been enforcing the ordinance for about three weeks through a complaint-based system where the public or city staff report possible violations to the code enforcement division, Grossman said.
If a code enforcement officer finds that the business is still using plastic packaging, they issue a warning letter that gives them a 30-day grace period to comply. Grossman said businesses that don’t comply are issued a $75 citation. Subsequent violations earn a $93.25 citation.
The city has received four complaints since July 1 and given 50 verbal warnings with educational flyers, said city spokesperson Constance Farrell.
“The goal of the city is not to issue citations right off the bat, but to help businesses make the transition,” Grossman said.