Years into the pandemic, the cost of all those Styrofoam containers is adding up
Photography by Chip Chockley
Fans of the sitcom Friends often quoted Ross Geller, who screamed, “Pivot! Pivot!” while maneuvering a couch in a stairwell in one memorable episode. Decades later, restaurant owners took up the same cry as the COVID-19 pandemic required restaurants to, well, pivot.
In an effort to survive a pandemic that closed their dining rooms and affected their bar business, restaurants pivoted to takeout services and curbside availability. They hoped to maintain a loyal customer base that would help them weather what would become a two-plus-year storm.
Now, nearly three years removed from the start of the pandemic, Memphis restaurants are left with a big pile of problems: increased waste and a dependency on single-use, non-sustainable takeout containers.
Along with this has come the financial cost of maintaining the takeout monster created during the pandemic.
Enter Project Green Fork, a program overseen by Clean Memphis. Since long before the pandemic began, they’ve been seeking to reduce the environmental impact of Memphis restaurants, in part by providing incentives for restaurants to switch to more environmentally friendly takeout containers.
Janet Boscarino, co-founder and executive director of Clean Memphis, knows that the challenge is not an easy one to conquer. Project Green Fork urges restaurants to source disposable products that are compostable, biodegradable, recyclable, or made from recycled content and to avoid use of polystyrene, known to most as Styrofoam. But these environmentally friendly containers are often more expensive than their polystyrene counterparts and, as Janet notes, negatively affect the often thin profit margin by which most restaurants operate.
Mariko “Riko” Wiley, owner of Riko’s Kickin’ Chicken, says he uses polystyrene because they’re cheaper than paper products or those made of recyclable materials. “I’ve looked at paper products, but we’re talking $44 to $45 versus $18 to $21 per package—and $100 to $200 extra every day. That adds up,” he says.
Riko spends his mornings driving around to area stores, including Sam’s Club and Gordon Food Service, pricing out what he needs for the coming days, including takeout containers. “I’d love to switch, in a heartbeat! Our wings are so hot, they sometimes burn through the Styrofoam,” he says. But it’s cost-prohibitive for Riko and his wife Tiffany, who oversee the operations of their restaurant with the help of their three kids.
Binder Kumar, owner of India Palace, echoes the sentiment. Binder estimates that 10 percent of his business, pre-pandemic, was takeout. That figure has ballooned to somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of his overall business. Binder’s stew-like entrées depend heavily on durable plastic containers. “People can take them home, wash them, and use them again,” he says
But for some menu items, he utilizes polystyrene. “Styrofoam is just cheaper,” he says. “We’ve never tried another product but would do it if it was cheaper and more durable.”
Janet says there are two big challenges facing restaurants with a heavy dependency on single-use or polystyrene containers for takeout business: externalizing the cost and lack of demand for change. “There’s an environmental expense of using Styrofoam. We must bring the cost of takeout containers back into the cost of business and have it reflected in the cost of the product, and we, as consumers, need to be okay with it,” she says. “Next, if there is an increased demand for sustainable packaging, then the cost comes down.”
“It starts with the consumer. Patronize restaurants that prioritize use of sustainable containers.”
It’s easier said than done, Riko says. At his favorite downtown restaurant, he sees a difference in what they’re able to afford “They’re getting top dollar for food. They can afford to do paper takeout containers,” he says.
Riko hits upon an important topic: Is sustainability an unaffordable luxury for many Memphis restaurants not owned by white people?
“We need more diversity in the Project Green Fork family,” Janet admits. “We have to explore ways to support and sustain all of our restaurants.” A quick glance through Project Green Fork-certified Memphis restaurants reveals that most are run by white owners.
Janet and her team have come up with an interesting proposition: What if there was a way to subsidize the cost of sustainable takeout containers for those restaurants that struggle to afford them but want to transition to using them? “We’re exploring the idea of a subsidy for restaurants to get started, like a 90-day transition period,” she says.
The opportunity for a reduced cost to become certified and less dependent on single-use containers would be a game-changer for Riko and his restaurant. Eighty percent of his business is still takeout, compared to about 50 percent pre-pandemic. An initiative to assist him with the cost of switching to sustainable paper products would ease the burden on his family-owned restaurant.
“Prices aren’t going down, so it’s a concern looking down the road,” he says. “Poultry is finally starting to go down, which is near and dear to my heart, but cups and to-go containers are up and down—our day-to-day stuff.”
To become certified through Project Green Fork, a restaurant has to meet six criteria, including using sustainable products, engaging in waste management, utilizing green cleaning products, taking steps to reduce and conserve water and energy, working with local agencies to donate unused food, and properly maintaining kitchen appliances. Restaurants that meet the requirements receive not only certification, but discounts on sustainable products.
Biscuits & Jams is one of those Project Green Fork-certified restaurants. To become certified, staff tackled several areas, including switching to paper takeout boxes, buying reusable cups, beginning to compost, focusing on recycling, and using real plates and silverware for diners.
Monique “Chef Mo” Williams, chef and co-owner of Biscuits & Jams, acknowledges that it was difficult, but worth it, to make the switch. “It’s hard!” she says.
“We’re so used to doing things a certain way, and it takes time, and being repetitive, to get to where we are. We’ve worked really hard to get to where we’re green and don’t have a lot of waste.”
Chef Mo and her team began the transition to a green restaurant in late August 2022. Since then they’ve added a 20 percent charge to their takeout orders to cover the additional costs of the paper takeout containers and bags, the recycled cutlery, and gratuity for her waitstaff and kitchen crew. “My partner is a numbers guy, so when we began the switch, I really had to convince him that it’s the right thing to do, that it’ll pay off,” she says. “This affects more than just us. I can tell employees’ minds are changing and they see how good this is for the environment and sustainability.”
They’ve also seized the challenge to reduce waste by using extra biscuits to create bread pudding and repurposing spiffed-up champagne bottles as decor on their outdoor patio. “Waste is costly. We try to create very little waste and recycle all that we can,” says Chef Mo.
Even with success stories like Biscuits & Jams, Janet acknowledges that the pandemic wreaked havoc on restaurants, even those that are already Project Green Fork-certified. “With costs and supply chain issues, they had to use whatever they could get [to sustain their takeout business],” she says.
WIth that in mind, Janet and her team are looking for ways to help more restaurants, even those who don’t meet all Project Green Fork criteria.
“We want to be a resource for all restaurants, not just those that are Project Green Fork-certified,” she says.
This year, she hopes to focus on an initiative targeted at single-use cutlery, as well as launch a broader education campaign to support restaurants that practice sustainability and internalize costs. In addition to their hope of a program that subsidizes the cost of sustainable takeout containers, Janet is looking to introduce training videos for restaurants on how to properly compost and even is hoping to offer classes that focus on reducing food waste.
An existing service that Project Green Fork offers is a waste audit. Janet says that restaurants already pay a fee to have waste hauled away, whether it goes to a landfill, compost, or a recycling program. So one of Project Green Fork’s goals is to help restaurants identify ways to reduce waste and ensure that the waste they do produce is hauled somewhere other than a landfill.
With the help of Project Green Fork’s future initiatives aimed at sustainability and resourcefulness, Janet is hopeful that restaurants can begin to reinvent previous practices with a focus on future generations and environmental health.
The pandemic cultivated a dependency on the luxury and ease of takeout, but it’s time to help usher Memphis’s beloved culinary institutions into a more sustainable era.
“We’re going to work to supplement restaurants in the long-term,” says Janet. “It’s a journey—a relationship, a partnership.”
Meghan Stuthard moved to Memphis from Nashville in 2005 and never looked back. She’s an HR professional by day and a lover of all things Memphis food and drink by night. @meghanshelby
Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais, and his wife and kids. @chipchockley