'The little efforts are important': How Wisconsin restaurants are adjusting daily operations to help tackle plastic pollution

Melissa Siegler
Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune
Rachael Peterson places scones in a to-go container for a customer on Wednesday at Ruby Coffee Roasters Cafe in Stevens Point. The cafe has made the move to using recyclable to-go packaging and paper straws to improve its environmental sustainability.

For Jared Linzmeier, owner of Ruby Coffee Roasters, operating with the environment in mind is a tenet of good business.

Linzmeier opened a coffee roastery near Nelsonville in 2014 and a café in Stevens Point in 2019. He said they have always been more inclined to use sustainable materials. The café provides biodegradable or recyclable takeout containers as well as paper straws for their to-go drinks. The business also offers its roasted coffee beans in sustainable bags and pays a local farm for compost disposal.

Even during the pandemic, they remained committed to their environmental efforts.

"For a while, deep in the pandemic especially, it was like, well everything has to be to-go," Linzmeier said. "Let’s at least put our best foot forward and use renewable resources."

But that decision didn't come without its difficulties. Linzmeier said contending with supply issues and soaring costs on paper products during the pandemic proved to be difficult. He said they'd find a new environmentally friendly option for to-go boxes or packaging they were excited about, but it would be sold out the next time they went to order.

Bags of coffee are seen for sale on Wednesday at Ruby Coffee Roasters Cafe in Stevens Point. The cafe has made the move to using recyclable packaging and paper straws to improve its environmental sustainability.

The pandemic exacerbated a lot of societal issues, including the already immense problem of plastic pollution, which is largely driven by the world's production and consumption of single-use plastics. Typically these items aren't recyclable, so they end up in landfills or find their way into our lakes, rivers and oceans.

Susan Quam, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, said the lobbying and business support organization was seeing a huge push by Wisconsin restaurant owners before the pandemic to reduce the amount of plastic they use. Many already had opted to use paper straws, biodegradable or recyclable takeout containers or bags created from cornstarch. 

But when the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, restaurants were forced to close their doors and switch to takeout only, increasing the need for single-use plastic containers, cups, utensils and bags, which tend to be cheaper than the sustainable alternatives. For instance, in 2018, paper straws were about five times more expensive to produce than plastic straws.

While we slowly ease back into pre-pandemic norms, many local restaurants are still struggling to stay afloat after more than two years of economic strain and a difficult labor market. Efforts to switch back to sustainable options are often hampered by high costs and supply chain issues.

General manager Dylan Stolley offers up a half-pound Becket's Oshburger with hand-cut fries in a sustainable to-go container April 12 at Becket's restaurant in Oshkosh.

Big businesses can help pave a greener path

Popular restaurant chains and organizations are exploring sustainable alternatives as the world tries to tackle plastic pollution. Starbucks announced in March it was launching reusable cup pilot programs in six markets, and by the end of 2023 customers will be able to bring their own reusable cup to any Starbucks location in the U.S. and Canada. The company has an overall goal to reduce its waste by half by 2030.

In Wisconsin, Fiserv Forum, home of the Milwaukee Bucks, opted to use paper straws when it opened in 2018 and they are also using biodegradable takeout boxes. They recently partnered with Racine-based SC Johnson to recycle the 1 million plastic cups used each year at the forum. SC Johnson will use the plastic for the company's Scrubbing Bubbles bottles.

Quam said efforts like these from larger organizations can help make things easier on small businesses. If there's more demand for renewable products, manufacturers are more likely to provide the supply. 

"If McDonald's wants to go to a different cup, because of the volume, a manufacturer has to sit up a listen," Quam said. "Smaller businesses have a harder time."

'Every little bit is a big thing.'

For Kris Larson, owner of Becket's in Oshkosh, maintaining the restaurant's sustainable practices during the pandemic was a little easier. He said they needed to switch suppliers once over the last two years, but otherwise had few difficulties. 

Becket's is located right on the Fox River in downtown Oshkosh. They've offered sustainable takeout containers since they opened in 2008.

An Oshkosh Old Fashioned is hand muddled, made with Central Standard brandy produced in Milwaukee, and served with a wood stir stick instead of a plastic straw at Becket's restaurant in Oshkosh.

Larson said the restaurant also switched to a straws-by-request policy in 2018, which was met with overwhelming positivity from customers. Mixed drinks are served with a wood stir stick and the straws they do use are vegetable-based, typically made from cornstarch.

The no-straw strategy is also the most "green" option as plastic alternatives all have their own pros and cons when it comes to protecting the environment.

Larson said it was a seamless move when they stopped serving straws with every drink, and it's been more cost-effective, too. Before they implemented the policy, they were ordering new straws every month, but now one order can last them for a year, he said.

"The little efforts are important," Larson said. "We’re beholden to our community. ... Every little bit is a big thing."

Contact USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Melissa Siegler at msiegler@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Marie2Melissa.

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