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The Plastic Purge

Boise's mobile food and beverage services double down on reducing waste


This is part Three of a three-part series on Boiseans who innovate in the three Rs—Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Decades before #plasticfree, the start of a global movement toward zero waste living, the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or viral videos of sea turtles with straws lodged in their nostrils, Boise entrepreneur Jo Fryberger's mother foresaw the tide turning against plastics.

"We don't have to worry about nukes," she told her daughter in the midst of 1950s Cold War hysteria. "We're all going to smother in our own trash."

  • A Likely Chef Catering

Just a decade later, in 1965, a continuous plankton recorder snagged a plastic bag off the coast of Ireland. It was the first plastic marine litter ever recorded according to the BBC, and a harbinger of much worse to come.

The 1950s could easily be considered the Plastic Decade. Though variations of plastic have been around since 1869, the rise of synthetics didn't truly start until World War II ratcheted up the pressure on American manufacturers, forcing them to find creative alternatives to natural materials. Plastics strengthened ropes, lined helmets and augmented parachutes on the front lines. At home they started showing up in cars, packaging and furniture. According to the Science History Institute, U.S. plastic production increased by 300% during WWII.

When the war ended, the American obsession with plastics continued. The 1950s ushered in Saran Wrap, Tupperware parties and—thanks to Monsanto, Disney and a pair of MIT architects—the world's first all-plastic house, built to predict the futuristic abodes 1987 might bring. As The Rail reported, "Millions of visitors streamed in to see the spectacle and imagine a future made of resins."

"I'm 72 years old, and I remember my mom when I was a child talking about everything becoming desposable, because that was when it first started," Fryberger said.

Today, plastic has become so ubiquitous that it's practically invisible, as integral to our daily lives as the air we breathe. The synthetic material is everywhere: holding together refrigerators and cell phones, corralling makeup and shampoo in bathrooms, and mingling with natural fibers in sweaters and socks. Microplastics—tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters long that result from the degradation of larger items—have even infiltrated food and water systems. This summer, Consumer Reports revealed that the average American ingests at least 74,000 microplastic particles every year.

  • Crisp

As pollution increasingly clogs the oceans and the impacts of climate change spread, Boiseans are taking it upon themselves to separate their businesses from the plastic forks, cups and plates that have become second nature in the food and beverage space. For Fryberger, that means taking a leaf out of her mother's book. This summer, with the help of the Zero Waste Boise Institute (ZWBI), Fryberger's mobile beer, wine and alcohol business Jo's Traveling Bar took its biggest step yet toward ditching plastics, replacing its 7- and 16-ounce beer and wine glasses with cups made from compostable corn-based resin for the Hyde Park Street Fair.

Fryberger said the change will be permanent, and she hopes to swap out the bar's 10-ounce cocktail cups as well when she finds an eco-friendly option that fits her specifications.

"She made it so easy," Fryberger said of ZWBI founder Jillien Eijckelhof, who approached multiple vendors before the event with an offer to help them cut down on waste. "...I just picked the one she said was most viable and rolled with it. She probably saved me about a year [of research]."

Much of Eijckelhof's outreach was part of a two-year partnership between the ZWBI the North End Neighborhood Association (NENA), formed to support the association's efforts to make the festival more sustainable.

"This work was partly funded by a NENA neighborhood grant, partly on contract, and partly as a volunteer effort by ZWBI," she wrote in an email.

Though Eijckelhof said ZWBI's ultimate goal is "to eradicate 'disposable' from our vocabulary, period," moving businesses toward more sustainable options is a valuable first step. To make it easy for them, the ZWBI team put together an extensive primer of eco-friendly brands, including a cost breakdown, and offered the HPSF vendors access to a Sustainable Servingware University workshop on key points.

Though no HPSF vendors attended the workshop, which ZWBI opened up to other business owners, several embraced Eijckelhof's research and assistance or had already adopted green practices. In early 2019, for example, Eijckelhof said Boise's Ben & Jerry's had replaced its plastic spoons with wooden versions and swapped plastic straws for paper.

Crisp, a global cuisine food truck owed by husband-wife team Jake and Christina Sandberg that made an appearance at the HPSF, has used Ecoproducts compostable bowls since day one, but in the beginning was more concerned with utility and aesthetics than the environment. The 32-ounce bowls were perfect for large entrees and had a cleaner look than what Christina called the "flimsy, tacky" styrofoam. For the HPSF, the Sandbergs also tried out compostable Eco Products cups, Earthchoice plates and Verde flatware. Eijckelhof helped steer them toward brands that were not only green but practical, as in the past they'd had trouble finding compostable silverware that held up to heavy use.

  • Crisp

"We really just want to take steps in the right direction to be eco friendly," Christina wrote in an email. "We have talked to Revolusun about making our truck solar-powered and would totally entertain the idea of serving food in non-disposable containers with metal flatware. We got our start at the Boise Farmers Market, and I think being part of such a tight-knit community like that promotes sustainability and environmental awareness. It just makes you feel like if you do your part, regardless of how big or small, you do make a difference."

Like the Sandbergs, Fryberger was already aware of the plastic problem before she met Eijckelhof, and was taking steps to lighten the carbon footprint of Jo's Traveling Bar. She'd worried for years over the state of the world's oceans—The Ocean Conservancy reports that more than 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped there each year on top of the 150 million metric tons currently circulating—and that concern led her to eliminate plastic straws (which are now offered by request) and replace her business's plastic stir-sticks with wooden ones. Cups moved into the next spot on her list after a trip to Europe in the spring of 2019 opened her eyes to a life without single-use plastics.

"What really kind of brought it to me was when a friend and I did a cruise down the Danube River, from Budapest to Prague, and on that whole trip I saw one [plastic] bottle of water," Fryberger said.

Gary and Dee Hanes of A Lively Chef Catering, which frequently partners with Jo's Traveling Bar, also inspired Fryberger. They transitioned to eco-friendly hot and cold cups, plates and tableware as soon as it became available—between 15 and 20 years ago, Gary estimated—as an alternative to styrofoam, and today buy the majority of their stock at Smart Foodservice (formerly Cash & Carry) in Boise.

"The cold cups, they look just like the old 9-ounce plastic ones, but they aren't plastic. Those are so biodegradable that if you put water in them and set them out in the sun they will start to melt," Gary said.

Armed with Eijckelhof's research on eco-friendly alternative tableware, Fryberger selected cups from Green Paper Products LLC to replace her dwindling plastic stock. Reactions at the Hyde Park Street Fair were positive, but Fryberger still worries over the ultimate fate of those cups.

"About all you can find right now is compostable. I wish Boise had a commercial composting setup, but we don't. But they do eventually biodegrade, which the regular plastic just doesn't, so they're a better option," she said.

The City of Boise's curbside composting system, implemented in 2017, has been massively successful, turning more than 40,000 tons of waste into compost. However, its quick-composting method isn't conducive to breaking down most plant-based plastics. "Just because something says 'compostable' does not mean it can go in your compost cart," the City of Boise website reminds. Fryberger worries that consumers who aren't aware of this fine line might toss her cups in compost bins where they don't belong.

"My long-term goal is we'll just go to all-glass unless or until they come up with a truly biodegradable plastic," Fryberger said.

Jo's Traveling Bar already uses glass at partner venues that provide storage, but Fryberger said using it for mobile events is more problematic.

"With plastic you just put it out, use it and throw it in the trash. Glass you have to carry it to the event, get it out of the box, have a place to put it all, and then gather it from the tables, wash it, get it back in the boxes, and then the space it takes up in the van [is a lot] comparatively," she said.

Because hauling and cleaning it means more labor, that means a charge for customers, though Fryberger tries to incentivise eco-friendly practices by absorbing 10% of the cost herself. She also recently bought a bigger van specifically for transporting glass to large events.

More and more, food trucks and catering companies are starting to consider their waste streams. In 2018, the North Carolina-based nonprofit Don't Waste Durham started offering a "green truck certification program" to help vendors reduce their carbon footprint, and according to Waste360, several hundred trucks were quick to sign on. Here in Idaho, Hailey native Blake Schnebly's sustainability consulting company SustainingUS partnered with Riverstone International School in May to hold a zero-waste food truck rally as part of Earth Week.

In a Facebook post, SustainingUS wrote, "This year we ate about 250 meals and only made 35 grams of landfill-bound trash!" and thanked participants, including Tacos y Tortas El Paco, Bang on the Wall Burgers and Il Segreto Wood Fired Pizza.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to eco-friendly choices for those in the food service industry is cost. Some entrepreneurs, like Fryberger and the Sandbergs, are willing to absorb those costs for the benefit of the planet, but many aren't. According to Bizfluent, food truck profit margins hover between 6.1 and 9%, only slightly higher than those of restaurants. That margin disappears quickly when you increase your costs, and Frybergat said swapping out cups alone increased her cost per case ordered by nearly 40%.

"I've kind of accepted the fact that I may not live to see perfection, but I'm working on it. We're at least trying to head in the right direction, and I think a lot of people are becoming more aware," Fryberger said.