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COMMENTARY: My restaurant shifted away from plastics, and others can too



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Recycling has become far more difficult since China sharply scaled back what it will take. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

By Mikey Knab
Los Angeles Times


LOS ANGELES — I run Mexican restaurants in San Diego, the taco capital of the United States. We see our restaurants as community gathering places and believe we have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the world. In recent years, that has included trying to reduce our environmental footprint.

A large part of our business is takeout orders, and that is only increasing as delivery apps like Door Dash and Postmates are changing the way Americans eat. A few years ago, some of our customers expressed concerns about the packaging we — and most restaurants — used for takeout food.

We took those concerns seriously and began learning what we could about our options and about the city of San Diego's aggressive Climate Action Plan. Here are some of things we learned: California recycles less than 15% of single-use plastic materials. China, which used to take much of our recycling, has sharply curtailed such imports, leaving local municipalities with huge bills for processing these materials. And worst of all, plastic and Styrofoam often end up in the ocean as "microplastic," which turns up in fish and drinking water.

After gaining an understanding of these facts, we decided to do everything we could to reduce our carbon footprint by pursuing a composting program, eliminating single-use products — especially plastic ones — whenever possible, and replacing our lighting fixtures with low-energy alternatives.

These changes weren't cheap, but we received positive feedback from our customers and staff. Even more important, we felt like we were doing the right thing. Ours is the kind of business where we know our regular customers' names and the names of their children. We know what our regulars generally order. We feel like we have a responsibility to them not to degrade the world they live in.

Unfortunately, not many of our competitors have followed suit. They still opt for cheaper options like Styrofoam rather than recycled paper takeout boxes. They say that changing the way they operate would require them to raise prices, cut staff or shutter their restaurants.

Our example proves this isn't so. But it's clear that many businesses need a nudge to do what's best for the world.

The changes we've made are not enough to really move the needle if we're going at it alone. Moreover, we want to compete on a level playing field. Doing what's best for California and the world shouldn't have to come at a competitive disadvantage.

Legislation now pending in Sacramento would require all businesses to play an active role in reducing waste. The proposed laws would require that single-use packaging be fully recyclable or compostable by 2030 and would require the state to ensure that 75% of single-use plastic packaging and products is diverted from landfills. The law would level the playing field for businesses like ours, requiring all of us to share the cost of protecting the environment.

The proposed laws would increase demand for high-quality, ecologically friendly products, and that would bring its own benefits. As the market for such goods explodes, new and cheaper options will be brought to market, and California restaurants will be the beneficiaries. We can also tell our fellow restaurateurs with confidence that their customers will appreciate the changes.

Our original restaurant will celebrate its 50th anniversary this September. We're incredibly proud of that and grateful to the loyal staff and customers who have made it possible. In order to reach our 100-year anniversary, we have a responsibility to do what we can to see that San Diego remains a viable place to live, work and eat tacos.

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