While restaurants commit to keeping staff and customers healthy by following measures outlined by the CDC during the COVID-19 crisis, the unfortunate side effect of some of those precautions has been an increase in waste.

Rachael Coccia, the plastic pollution manager at Surfrider Foundation, explains, "COVID-19 has resulted in an unnecessary and easily avoidable consequence—a spike in single-use plastic and the devastating pollution that comes with it. We see many restaurants switching to single-use; some of that is unavoidable due to the increased demand for takeout. Thankfully, there are a number of startups successfully testing models for reusable takeout.” Coccia adds, "We cannot afford to fuel one crisis while working to avert another.”

Many of San Diego’s restaurateurs have taken the initiative to reduce waste in other ways during the pandemic by selecting more eco-friendly takeout containers and reducing food waste with streamlined menus.

Photo Credit: Michelle Stansbury

QR Code Menus

Instead of turning to disposable menus when restaurants reopened, some spots started using QR code menus that reduce waste and eliminate a touchpoint for waitstaff. Garibaldi, the new speakeasy-style alfresco bar and restaurant, opened in June with QR code menus. Other restaurants, like Hillcrest's Rusticucina, Giardino in Lemon Grove, and Cardellino in Mission Hills, have all adopted QR code menus to cut down on disposable menu waste.

Photo Credit: Michelle Stansbury

Donating Surplus Food

Restaurants were shut down without much notice at the start of the shelter-at-home order, leaving many kitchens full of food at risk of going to waste. Several local restaurants decided there was a generous solution. Executive chef and partner of Herb & Sea, Sara Harris, says, “At the start of COVID in March, I immediately thought of all the seafood, meat, and produce that would undoubtedly go bad before we were able to reopen. We sent our staff home with care packages full of ingredients but we still had items that would perish. Another restaurant in town, Ranch 45, was doing meal donations for industry workers that had been displaced.” Harris and the team donated the remaining food and Ranch 45 prepared it for out-of-work hospitality staff.

Photo Credit: Michelle Stansbury
Photo Credit: Michelle Stansbury
Photo Credit: Michelle Stansbury
Photo Credit: Michelle Stansbury

Leading the Way

The Plot, San Diego’s first zero-waste ethos restaurant, led by Jessica and Davin Waite of Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub and The Whet Noodle, haven’t taken steps back from their mission of “nothing intended for the landfill,” even during the takeout-focused pandemic. The main challenge they’ve faced so far during the pandemic has been plastic gloves. The Plot turns to Terracycle to responsibly process single-use gloves and other hard-to-recycle items.

Taking it a step further, The Plot’s main weapon against waste is targeting full use of food products. Chef Davin Waite shares that at The Plot “byproducts are treasured, not viewed as waste. The dishes would be lacking something without those additions. Total utilization isn't about pinching your nose and choking back something just because it's good for the environment.” For example, corn husk and burnt corn silk add flavor and depth to the house version of elote.

Agave Straws

Puesto is serving straws made from agave with their cocktails, both dine-in and take away. The straws made out of organic waste from tequila production by the Sustainable Agave Company are recyclable and compostable. They naturally biodegrade within six weeks and don’t break down in liquid or get soggy like paper straws.

The best low waste cocktail choice? Puesto's fruit cart margarita mixes fruit scraps with Don Julio Blanco with a Tajín garnished rim.

Compostable Containers

Since a majority of recyclable takeout containers don’t end up getting recycled, compostable takeout containers are a great solution. Barleymash uses compostable to-go products, along with plant-based cutlery and sugar cane pulp boxes. Homestead in Solana Beach cuts their compostable boxes in half to use them as plates "for here” orders or with the lid for "to go” orders. With that simple method, they have reduced their compostable box consumption by half.

Courtesy of reVessel


Even better than compostable containers, ReVessel has partnered with community restaurants to provide reusable takeout containers. Six sustainably minded food businesses, who have had to shift to take out during the pandemic, quickly jumped on board with Bell’s idea. Together with owners at GOODONYA, LuckyBolt, Wild Thyme Company, Wrench and Rodent, The Plot, O’side Kitchen Collaborative, and Frontline Foods, Bell is reimagining a future of food without the waste.

Their new initiative gives meals to frontline workers who then keep the reVessel as a thank you for their service. During the program, restaurants can test their operation with reusable foodware production, hopefully allowing them to eventually break free from plastic and disposables while cutting their costs.  

Takeaways on Take Out

The responsibility for reducing waste doesn’t fall only on restaurants. Individuals can help reduce waste through some simple practices. First, when ordering takeout, ask for no plastic utensils with your order. Use QR codes to read the menu on your phone instead of asking for disposable menus. Support waste-minded restaurants and let them know that you appreciate their dedication.

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