Sonoma County pursues returnable foodware as more Marin County locales ban single-use plastic

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By Susan Wood | April 11, 2023

As more North Bay cities stick a fork in the movement toward eco-friendly foodware, Zero Waste Sonoma agreed to a contract Friday with an Oakland company to wash and supply reusables at local eateries.

Sparkl, led by founder and CEO Paul Liotsakis, intends to supply Sonoma County food service venues, such as grocers, with “clamshell” containers, plates, bowls and utensils, then redeliver them once washed.

The pilot program aims to ease the public into “reusables” that Liotsakis refers to as “returnables” in eco-conscious foodware vernacular.

Sparkl’s four employees, including Liotsakis, already do business with more than 50 Bay Area waste management and food service organizations in about a dozen cities, ranging from Palo Alto to San Rafael. Sonoma County’s contract involves a $75,000 grant for the 8-year-old startup that Liotsakis said reaped more than $100,000 in revenue last year.

“I’m very excited. Everybody is stuck on getting reusables in restaurants and retail outlets,” he said. “Single-use is the enemy.”

The drive for the public to buy into environmentally friendly ways to eat on the run without clogging our landfills and waterways with fossil-fueled, chemically laced plastics and microplastics has failed to go without challenges. As for returnables, Revive Kombucha in Petaluma tried a bottle-washing operation four years ago but found it difficult to meet the demand.

“We’re well aware there are still pitfalls in this business. That’s why we’re still considered in a startup mode,” Liotsakis said, pledging to move slowly and carefully. “We have tempered expectations.”

That said, Liotsakis said he plans to expand from his 1,000-square-foot facility in Oakland to develop a satellite washing operation in Sonoma County by the end of 2024 to better service its northern Bay Area client.

“When you think about it, it’s no different than washing dishes or china,” he said.

Meanwhile, Zero Waste Sonoma has contemplated an expansion of its own as waste procurement companies have learned more about materials that are bad for the environment.

Following the adoption of its program five years ago that bans polystyrene, labels compostables as more acceptable and touts reusables as the best method, Zero Waste Sonoma Program Manager Sloane Pagal said its working platform has undergone a few reiterations. In 2021, it added a ban to materials that contained fluorinated chemicals.

Most of the cities within the county bought into the rules, with the exception of Petaluma, which bans only Styrofoam packaging. In 2019, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol led the way to cut down on the cities’ trash output, adopting a single-use platform that endorses chemical-free foodware for compostables.

The county advises restaurants to provide foodware upon request.

“For the most part, we’re pretty consistent across the county,” Pagal said.

This doesn’t mean all agree about what exactly is good or bad to the same degree.

Amy’s Kitchen, which is based in Petaluma but has other restaurant locations in Corte Madera and Rohnert Park, is convinced its food ware items are eco-friendly to the waste stream.

Amy’s spokesman, Paul Schiefer, said his company worked on developing an inventory of compostables long ago, based on recommendations from the Biodegradable Products Institute, a standard-bearer for most jurisdictions.

He estimated the endeavor cost about 25% more ($150,000) than traditional packaging. Schiefer said he believes picking apart every type of ingredient isn’t necessarily the answer to the eco food-accessory debate, even though the waste haulers may balk at handling the materials.

To him, the solution may lie with upgrading the waste-hauling systems.

“We were light years ahead of any restaurant — well ahead of any legislation,” Schiefer said. “We share the goal of getting rid of single-use plastic. But why rob consumers from meaningful solutions to get there?”

He equates eliminating compostables just because there’s a sliver of chemical compounds to banning electric vehicles because gas station owners don’t want to install chargers.

“What does this leave (as a material to work with) — wood? You can’t eat that,” he said.

Sea life that comes into the shores of Marin County may fare better if plastics either went away or were managed better on land, according to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

Associate Director of Conservation Education Adam Ratner told the North Bay Business Journal that on any given week, his facility treats marine mammals caught ingesting single-use plastic foodware materials — from straws to six-pack holders.

But beyond the obvious, Ratner worries more about what the center staff can’t see — microplastics.

“That fork can break down. We know they’re getting it in smaller animals in the food chain,” he said, adding the need for all jurisdictions to operate on the same platform.

“The most important component to a solution is consistency,” he said.

But from the state to counties to cities, that may be easier said than done.

Through the passage of California Assembly Bill 1276 that took effect Jan. 1, 2022, any restaurant operating in the state would be prohibited from “providing any single-use foodware accessory or standard condiment as defined to a consumer unless requested by the consumer.”

It also lays out a requirement for cities and counties to authorize an enforcement agency to impose fines for infractions.

Companies who make food service their 24/7 business got on board. For example, Grubhub joined the #CutOutCutlery campaign by providing the foodware items with the meals only by request.

Still, by allowing for materials with fluorinated chemicals, the state fails to go far enough to Zero Waste Sonoma. That’s why it upgraded the rules.

In Marin County, its foodware ordinance was adopted last year for the unincorporated area and goes into effect in November. The policy calls for the elimination of single-use plastic for food service vendors.

Cities within the county have come on board in adopting the county’s ordinance.

“It’s a good sign they’re all considering. That was our intent,” county Senior Sustainability Planner Dana Armanino said. “It levels the playing field.”

The county has even upped the ante by offering an incentive that, if a city signs onto the ordinance, the county will waive the onboarding fee to have the county enforce the rules starting in November.

Fines, depending on the level of infractions in time periods, may range from $100 to $500.

Larkspur is the latest in a series of North Bay cities to require food facilities and vendors to hand out reusable foodware for dining in and compostable items, such as utensils with chopsticks, napkins, cup sleeves and containers, for takeout. It’s expected to meet this month with the plan.

The bayside city is joining Fairfax, Mill Valley, Novato, Ross and San Anselmo in adopting versions designed to eliminate plastic made from fossil fuels. The unincorporated section of the county and Tiburon adopted the ordinance last year.