SAN FRANCISCO — First, reusable grocery bags were lost to the coronavirus.
Silverware and ceramic plates may be the next to go.
As restaurants around California — and the country — reopen for full-service dining, the state says reusable tableware is fine with proper precautions. That’s at odds with the CDC, which says disposable dishes, utensils, napkins and tablecloths should be the default.
California recycling and clean water groups are pushing back on the federal guidance, sending a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom this month questioning surface transmission of the virus and blaming plastics and petrochemicals manufacturers for “trying to influence CDC guidelines for reopening food establishments in their favor.”
“The idea that the CDC recommends that single-use disposable items should be preferred seems a little illogical to me,” said Chris Slafter, interim coordinator of Clean Water Action’s ReThink Disposable program, which gives grants to restaurants and advises them on how to replace single-use food-service items with reusables. “Someone still has to handle that item before it goes into a customer’s hand.”
Before the pandemic, California was leading the way on eliminating single-use plastics in various consumer sectors. While environmentalists have long criticized plastic products for polluting oceans and overwhelming landfills, state and local leaders also have sounded the alarm after China in recent years stopped accepting many U.S. plastics for recycling.
But the virus has thwarted efforts to toughen statewide recycling targets. Backers of a ballot initiative to require all packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030 are likely postponing their measure to 2022, while lawmakers with similar goals have shelved their bills.
Meanwhile, plastic use has soared during the pandemic as restaurants have relied on takeout orders to stay afloat and grocery shoppers have reverted to disposable bags over sanitary concerns.
California has long been a leader on reducing plastic use — it was the first in the country to ban single-use plastic bags at large grocery stores — but it hasn’t spread to most other states, with only seven others following suit since then. Environmentalists hope other states will follow California’s lead on how to reopen restaurants and ignore the plastic industry’s lobbying on the federal level for officials to endorse single-use plastics during the pandemic.
“California is a good model,” said Rachael Coccia, plastic pollution manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s really going to be something [where] states have the power to make those types of decisions.”
Her organization is trying to get ahead of the issue, because how restaurants act now is likely to be the norm for a while.
Surfrider is reaching out to the 630 restaurants that are part of its network of “ocean friendly restaurants,” which pledge to exclusively use reusable foodware for on-site dining and provide utensils for takeout orders only upon request. It’s also circulating its own guidelines pointing out that the virus can survive on plastic surfaces.
So far, other states that have reopened restaurants and issued detailed guidelines are instituting rules similar to California’s. Texas is banning restaurants from pre-setting tables with napkins, utensils and glasses and requiring disposable menus and condiment containers, while Oregon is similarly prohibiting pre-setting tables and recommending single-use menus and condiments.
Stanford University epidemiologist Steven Goodman said reusable tableware should be as safe as disposable as long as restaurant staff take proper precautions.
“It doesn’t sound like there should be a big difference if they’re handled carefully,” he said. “Washing the plates well should get rid of [the virus], and so the only difference could be how they’re handled between the time when they are on the table and in the sink or in the washing machine.”
He noted that there could be a potential difference between hand-washing plates and using a dishwasher if virus particles somehow became aerosolized. “I don’t know the data, if there is any, about the danger to a gloved and masked dishwasher of hand-washing plates that might have coronavirus.”
Troy Paski, founder of Hoppy’s Railyard Kitchen and Hopgarden, is planning to open for dine-in service Friday with his normal tableware, but he said he will offer compostable, single-use options on request. The restaurant is spacing its tables to reduce capacity from 300 to 150.
“We already preroll our silverware,” said Paski. “We’re going to continue using reusable napkins and silverware, regular plates.”
California food service unions say they don’t have a position on reusable versus single-use items. UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents 14,000 such employees in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, put out guidelines that say “extremely high-touch items” like menus and salt and pepper shakers should be replaced with disposable versions, but don’t make reference to dishes and utensils.
The California Restaurant Association is directing its members to the state’s guidance but notes that local jurisdictions may decide to go further.
“Many of the current local public health orders (which are a response to the coronavirus pandemic) do put an emphasis on single-use products, and cities have been moving to suspend the ban on plastic bags,” said Sharokina Shams, CRA’s vice president of public affairs, in an email. “It’s also interesting to note that the number of delivery and takeout orders went up during stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders. If that becomes a long-term pattern, you may see the demand for single-use products rise.”
Environmental advocates are trying to encourage restaurants to stick with reusables — and hoping Newsom won’t come out with another executive action reversing his administration’s guidance, as he did by waiving the state’s plastic bag ban after CalOSHA recommended that stores have customers bag their own groceries if they bring reusable bags.
“To some extent, we were maybe a little nervous that would happen just because we were so blindsided with the plastic bag ordinance,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for the group Californians Against Waste, adding: “but no, I’m not expecting anything.”