Chowing down on slices at Presidio Pizza on Divisadero and Pine streets can occasionally get messy. Thankfully, diners have plenty of black, cloth napkins to wipe their chins and clean their hands after the last bite of cheesy, saucy goodness. The restaurant provides reusable napkins, along with reusable plates, cups and cutlery, to cut down on waste.
“It’s important to eliminate as much waste as possible,” Mango, the manager at Presidio Pizza, told me. “We end up putting the paper napkins in the compost, but even compost creates waste.”
It’s great to see restaurants, such as Presidio Pizza, recognize and address the enormous environmental impact of disposable goods. But there are costs associated with switching to reusable napkins, cups and cutlery. Presidio Pizza, for example, spends $32.20 a week for a service that drops off clean napkins and picks up dirty ones to launder. While Mango believes the service is cheaper than providing paper napkins, there are many variables to consider.
To understand the feasibility and costs associated with transitioning to more reusable foodware, a graduate student at UC Berkeley recently conducted two pilot programs at on-campus cafes. She found that the switch could overall be financially advantageous to restaurants.
“I wanted to conduct these pilots because transitioning to reusable foodware cannot be done overnight,” Jessica Heiges, who received her Master’s Degree on Monday from Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and will pursue a PhD at the school starting this fall, told me. “Pilots are a low-risk way to better understand the hurdles in transition, but also realize the potential benefits.”
Both participating cafes — Café Think in the Haas School of Business and Brown’s Café in the northwestern part of campus — already had commercial dishwashers prior to the study. But only Café Think also had reusable foodware and bussing stations in place. Brown’s Café had to purchase items, repurpose bussing stations and reorganize areas, such as the serving station, to accommodate the shift toward reusable.
During the study, both cafes realized cost savings. At Brown’s Café, for example, the cost of disposable foodware ranges from $0.16 to $0.23 based on the order. Switching to reusable saved the café between $70.20 to $90.00 during the nine days of the pilot. If Brown’s Café switched entirely to a reusable foodware system, it could save a projected $1,500 per week and reduce waste generation by 40 percent, which would also reduce its trash bill.
Heiges acknowledges these estimates do not consider the cost of additional labor or utilities to run the dishwasher. But if the average busser’s salary is $30,000 per year in Berkeley according to Glassdoor, a website that publicizes local salaries, hiring an extra laborer is cheaper than continuing to pay $1,500 per week for disposable goods.
“Yes, there is an initial upfront cost and yes, there are some additional costs associated with reusable foodware,” Heiges told me. “However, the potential costs saved through eliminating the recurring expense of disposable foodware as well as decreasing onsite waste (and thus trash fees), can be significant and should not be underestimated.”
Other studies conducted by ReThink Disposable, a program of Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, also found switching to reusable foodware resulted in net annual savings. A pilot conducted at the University of San Francisco’s Market Cafe between 2016 to 2017 identified a savings of over $150,000 from avoided disposable item purchases. No additional labor was needed to implement the transition.
Ultimately, the amount of savings is up to the customer. Presidio Pizza still offers paper napkins and disposable plates and cutlery to customers who ask for them. Mango said demand for paper napkins is high at lunchtime.
“It could be because we’re using black napkins and they look more formal,” he said. “If customers stopped demanding napkins the savings would be greater.”
Every San Franciscan plays a critical role in reducing the number of unnecessary disposable items that end up in our bins. Restaurants have a clear monetary incentive to switch to reusable. The rest of us should simply appreciate cleaner streets and beaches.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com