Santa Monica passed an ordinance banning all non-recyclable plastic and polystyrene (Styrofoam) at food service establishments in February, and with daily fines topping $250, restaurants have been quick to comply.
"Our goal is to become zero waste . . . to go back to a 1950s approach of using less, like wrapping a sandwich in paper instead of plastic," explains Josephine Miller, an environmental analyst for the city of Santa Monica's Green Programs Division. "But first we've got to do what it takes to get the Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic out of the ocean."
Acceptable choices include recyclable aluminum and plastic, paper and those compostable vegetable products.
But compostable isn't the same as biodegradable. Corn forks must be professionally composted at high temperatures, or they'll end up sharing landfill space with Styrofoam.
Some chefs, including Daniel Snukal of , have always preferred paper products "because they just decompose." And they cost a fraction of their shiny new vegetable great-grandchildren.
But others aren't as up on their composting lingo. At Bar Pintxo, manager Angel Stork says the restaurant recently switched from aluminum to corn to-go containers "because they were on the city's list, and they sounded better, so we thought they must be." Aluminum, almost 100% recyclable, is also on the list.
The problem isn't the product, but the lack of public compost bins. "The city said we could sign up for a food waste program," says Sang Yoon, owner of Father's Office in Santa Monica. "But we don't use to-go containers. Our customers do."
Santa Monica doesn't currently have public compost bins. Miller says the city plans to provide green compost bins for all single-family homes "very soon" (some private homes already have them). But getting compost bins to apartment buildings and office parks "is much more complex."
At Andiamo in Silver Lake, which isn't affected by the ban but "tries to keep everything compostable," manager Casey Anderson offers to take customers' used corn products and "put them in our composter." So far, no one has brought back their used cornware.
"You can always boil the stuff until it dissolves," Anderson says. But he calls back to say, "Forget that -- it'll only turn the fork into a twisted-up, weird science experiment."
And distinguishing between recyclable plastic items and corn products isn't always easy. The website for Tender Greens in Culver City touts its "strong sense of environmental responsibility." But co-owner David Dressler says he doesn't alert customers that the box housing their tuna niçoise salad can't be recycled. "We're not the end user of the product, so it's not our responsibility."
At Father's Office, Yoon is more direct. "We choose not to give people forks at all."
* Animal, the new restaurant from Carmelized Productions caterers (and former Food Network hosts) Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, has opened, with its daily changing menu of seasonal dishes including fried soft-shell crabs with pancetta vinaigrette and more than two dozen wines by the glass. 435 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 782-9225.
* SugarFish, sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa's latest restaurant, opens Monday with "Trust Me" (omakase gone casual) menus that include his blue crab rolls and white shrimp sushi. 4722 1/4 Admiralty Way, Marina del Rey, (310) 306-6300, www.sugarfishsushi.com.