Chef Sara Jenkins looks forward to the day when diners can enjoy her dishes on a plate in the dining room of her Nina June Restaurant in Rockport. In the meantime, like restaurateurs everywhere in Maine, she has been trying out takeout containers of every material, make and model to facilitate a takeaway operation to help sustain her bottom line.

“Exactly zero percent of my revenue before COVID came from takeout,” Jenkins said. Other than a few private dinners she’s safely hosted on site in the last year; most of her current income derives from meals made to go. She’s packaged the Italian fare she’s known for and special weekend Middle Eastern dinners in a combination of craft paper boxes, plastic quart containers and glass jars.

“Trying to find the right container for the right job means you could easily end up with a mountain of these things,” she said.

An unexpected and environmentally harmful side effect of the coronavirus pandemic? The mountain of takeout containers. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Just how many takeout containers have been called into service during the pandemic is hard to pin down, said self-proclaimed recycling geek Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine Director with the Natural Resource Council of Maine. “The 2020 data just isn’t available yet,” she said.

Anecdotally, though, you can get a sense of the situation by looking at the sales of the most popular takeout containers in food service: the classic 9- by 9- by 3-inch clamshell, says Luke LaBree, Chief Marketing Officer at Dennis Paper & Food Service, a Hampden-based distributor of restaurant supplies. Historically, these containers have been made from polystyrene (which cost about 14 cents a container). But impending bans on these foam boxes here in Maine and around the United States have sparked the manufacture of more sustainable options, like compostable bagasse (a byproduct of sugar production, 50 cents each), recyclable thermoplastic polymer (about 30 cents each), and paper clamshells.

Dennis Paper & Food Service brought in a new line of eco-friendly thermoplastic polymer clam shells in mid-2019. “We moved a few cases a month for nearly a year. Then the pandemic hit, and sales went from three cases in February, to six in March, 11 in April, 58 in May, 138 in June, culminating with nearly 200 cases sold in December,” LaBree said.

Over this period, another container could have become unavailable, and this line could have been purchased as the next best thing, he said. Maybe that sparked its growth? “But looking at the sales explosion at the height of the pandemic, I’m fairly confident takeout container demand was a driving force,” LaBree said.

In my zeal to support local restaurants during the pandemic, I’ve amassed my own takeout container mountain like those Jenkins warned about. I compost the compostable ones, reuse many plastic ones for storage, and repurpose others to parcel out goodies to neighbors I make and bake as part of my job as a recipe developer. Even with these waste stream diversion tactics in place, I still contribute to my town’s waste management problem when I drop the remaining ones in the recycling bin.

Municipalities in Maine handle trash and (optional) recycling programs for their residents. The task has become more difficult in the face of an elevated waste stream during the pandemic, China in 2018 limiting the recyclable materials it will accept, and a shortage of domestic operations that make products from recyclable materials, said Greg Dugal, who handles governmental affairs for the trade group HospitalityMaine, “It’s a perfect storm situation,” Dugal said. One that makes recycling a losing proposition for municipalities, at least for the moment.

According to Nichols, Maine towns pay on average $77 per ton to dispose of trash versus $128 per ton to recycle. A recent state report showed that recycling rates in 2019 were lower than those in the previous two years, and nowhere near the 50% recycling rate the state’s  Department of Environmental Protection set as a goal way back in 1989.

But the calvary is coming, Nichols said. Intrinsic to a packaging bill about to reach the Maine legislative floor is the notion of shifting the cost of recycling from municipalities, which shoulder that $16 to $17.5 million burden annually, to the entities that push out the plastic packaging in the first place, an approach known as EPR  (Extended Producer Responsibility). That includes giants like Amazon and McDonalds as well as independent entities like local restaurants and retail outlets if their revenue is above a certain level.

EPR creates economic incentives for business to use less packaging and recycled content over virgin materials, and could drive down the cost of more eco-friendly packaging. EPR policies exists in about 50 jurisdictions around the world (Germany and Sweden pioneered the approach decades ago) and a dozen other states have bills on tap this year that seek to deploy them.

Under the proposed bill, the money generated by an EPR policy in Maine would be distributed to cities and towns to offset the cost of collecting recyclables and to educate and staff a statewide program to teach businesses how to tabulate fees and reduce packaging.

Nichols says the legislation outlines a sliding scale fee based on how much packaging a producer generates. It specifies a flat fee if a company doesn’t want to track packaging, but if a business can get a handle on just how much it uses, the fees will likely be less than the flat fee. “And it’s in the tracking that more and more businesses will understand how much packaging they are putting out there,” Nichols said. “And that data will help drive down how much they use in the future.”

The proof of Maine’s EPR measure – and how it will affect both recycling rates and how restaurants package takeout food (or choose not to) in a post pandemic world – will be in the pudding.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige adds homemade vanilla extract to butterscotch pudding. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Butterscotch Pudding
It’s not easy to find a recipe to effectively illustrate waste stream management economics in the waning months of a global pandemic. So I settled on a comforting one to match this column’s ending cliché.

Makes a generous 2 cups

1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream, plus more, whipped for serving
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons molasses
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon bourbon vanilla extract

Combine the milk and cream in a large pitcher. Pour 3 tablespoons of the mixture into a small bowl and add the cornstarch and egg yolks; stir to combine. Set the pitcher and the cornstarch-yolk mixture to the side.

Add the sugar, molasses, salt and 3 tablespoons water to a high-sided medium saucepan, but do not stir it. Place the pan over medium heat. Heat until bubbling, swirling the mixture in the pan as it cooks to a caramel, 5-6 minutes. Keep a close eye on it so that it doesn’t burn. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the caramel for 2 minutes.

Add the milk/cream mixture to the pan, whisking as you do. The sugar will seize up and become hard, but it will melt when the pan goes back on the heat. Return the pan to the stove over medium-low heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer, whisking constantly. Once the caramel has dissolved, remove it from the heat. Add the warm mixture to the cornstarch/egg slurry very slowly to temper the eggs so they don’t scramble.

Return the mixture to the pan (place it in the top pan of a double boiler if you prefer), and place over medium heat. Whisk constantly as the mixture comes up to a simmer and cook, still whisking for a full minute. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter and bourbon vanilla.

Pour the pudding into serving cups through a fine mesh strainer. Enjoy warm or allow it to fully set in the refrigerator for 4 hours and serve cold topped with whipped cream. 


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