Not surprisingly, quite a few restaurants in environmentally conscious Durango have taken an extra step or two to eliminate the use of single-use plastic items.
“We’ve been actively working to eliminate plastic on the floor since we opened. It’s been a big priority,” said Jessie Kileen, co-founder, co-owner and CEO of Grassburger in Durango. “It’s part of our mission, our ethos, to reduce the footprint we leave on this Earth.”
She noted Grassburger uses holistic management and regenerative practices for livestock grazing to lighten its impact on the land and reduce carbon gases associated with operating the popular burger restaurant.
Grassburger has eliminated plastic straws by using biodegradable, corn-based straws. In addition, to-go containers are biodegradable, and by the end of February, Kileen expects to replace the plastic tops used on to-go containers with a biodegradable option.
The amount of plastic saved is significant, Kileen said.
“It’s like putting on a picnic for 200 people every day,” she said of the amount of plastic being kept out of landfills.
The fry oil used at Grassburger, she said, is recycled and used as fuel at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.
Christian Tribble, owner of The Living Tree Live Foods Salad Bar in downtown Durango, said even his to-go utensils are all corn- or sugar cane-based for biodegradability.
Like Grassburger, Tribble said the environmental practices at The Living Tree are not an afterthought.
“We try to be environmentally friendly in everything we do. We try to produce as little trash as possible,” he said.
Tribble is frustrated by the plastic packaging that accompanies the food and other items the restaurant purchases.
He said sustainable restaurant practices might be helped the most if suppliers and distributors nationwide made a more overt effort to replace plastic packaging with biodegradable materials.
“The hardest thing to find were replacements for the boba straws that we use for the Thai tea lattes. They’re thicker than regular straws, and not a lot of people are making biodegradable options,” she said.
The move to reduce single-use plastic in restaurants isn’t motivated solely by owners and customers. Political pressure also is being applied nationwide to eliminate single-use plastic items and reduce landfill use and pollution.
The Denver City Council recently enacted a 10-cent charge for the use of each plastic or paper bag customers get from stores.
In November 2013, voters in Durango voted 56% to 44% to reject a 10-cent fee on the use of each disposable bag.
The move came after the Durango City Council had approved the fee on disposable bags earlier in the year, but residents who opposed the fee got it on the November ballots and voters overturned the ordinance.
The Colorado General Assembly also might weigh in with state legislation that tightens the use of single-use plastics. In 2019, it considered six bills that would have limited or regulated the use of single-use plastics, but all the bills were tabled.
Cost remains a stumbling block preventing more widespread adoption of biodegradable options.
Velvet Jackson, who co-owns Raider Ridge Cafe with her husband, Evan, said they have been plastic-free in their to-go containers and straws for two years, a commitment the cafe’s mainly local clientele appreciates.
But going biodegradable is more costly.
A case of biodegradable cups cost $400 compared with $95 for a case of regular cups, Jackson said.
The cafe doesn’t charge for its biodegradable to-go containers, but it does charge 50-cents if someone orders a smoothie or a latte and asks for two cups to split the order, she said.
Mama Silva’s and East by Southwest also have a 3% surcharge on to-go orders to pay for the biodegradable containers and straws.
Clawson said locals understand the surcharge, and she gets only a few complaints a year from tourists upset by the surcharge.
“We get compliments from locals who are happy we are getting rid of plastics,” she said.
Grassburger does not charge extra for its biodegradable to-go containers.
Jackson is hopeful that as more restaurants adopt biodegradable products, their cost will come down.
“I feel like the costs have to go down as more and more people adopt them. It has to become more efficient for them to make them,” Jackson said.