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Paper plates in all restaurants due to drought - does it matter? [Moved from South board]

Those of us in the Southeast have been experiencing a pretty bad drought over the last year. I'm in central NC, and Raleigh went last week to Stage 2 drought restrictions. They've never had to go to Stage 3 before, so the rules for who can do what (or not) under those conditions have not yet been written, but there is talk that those restrictions may include requiring restaurants to use disposable silverware and plates. ALL restaurants.

The NC Convention and Visitors Bureau recently held a meeting of hoteliers and restauranteurs to discuss voluntary water conservation methods. For restaurants, those include using floor cleaning fluids that don't require water, and using hand sanitizer instead of water for hand-washing.

I've noticed some restaurants in the area are also asking patrons who want a glass to water to agree to paying a nominal fee (17 cents, in the case of Tyler's in Durham) for bottled water instead of using tap water.

But water usage is going to rise as the weather heats up, and that's not going to be enough. I'm sure other places in the Southeast are facing similar issues.

I know restauranteurs sure don't want to get to the plastic-fork-and-paper-plate-stage, but if it does happen, would it affect your restaurant visits, especially among the higher-end establishments? It seems quite unfair to penalize restaurants for something they will be required to do, but something like this would also affect the overall experience of dining, most especially in a pricier establishment. For people like us, who don't have a lot of money and can only dine in the more expensive places on special occasions, it might, I'd have to admit. Burger-and-pizza places, not so much, but a 3-star place? I'd have to think about that. Maybe a lot.

Your thoughts?

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  1. I'm probably in the minority here, but I live in the Triangle (Cary, where we have restrictions year-round) and I haven't washed my car since last summer. I collect the water that runs from the faucet while heating up and use it on houseplants. While I don't necessarily time my showers, I've decreased their length dramatically. I'm an avid gardner, and the water restrictions, both self and city imposed, are going to cut into that hobby dramatically.

    Therefore, if it's a choice between me having dinner on a china plate and having water coming out of the faucet when I turn it on, well, you can guess what my answer is going to be. I just don't think anyone can afford to be worried about the quality of their dining experience when the city in which you live has less than three months of water left. I personally think that the city's been slack in not imposing tighter restrictions sooner, so I'll live with the paper plates and cheer their arrival.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Suzy Q

      I'm taking from what you are saying that you would still dine out and not mind the paper plates. It also sounds like you are being very water conscious, more so than many people, and yes, I've been surprised by how little has been done in an official capacity to this point.

      But - what if eating at home, vs. eating out, would save more water? I can't prove it would, but I'd suspect that would be the case. I know I can cook here and use less water than a restaurant would. I don't have tables to wipe after every meal, linens to wash or a requirement to wash my floor every night regardless of how many people eat here on that night. I know I use less plates than a restaurant would for the same amount of food. Would your tendencies toward water conservation restrict your eating out even if it doesn't come to the paper plate stage?

      I know one thing I've considered too is everything that would go into a landfill if it couldn't be washed. I don't know if one offsets the other, but living in a rural area where one needs to pay for what one takes to the landfill - a significant increase in dump fees could be a consideration as well, not to mention how it affects the land environment. It's a tough question, no doubt.

    2. If it is a special occasion in those circumstances, bring your own then bring 'em home to wash. I'm in the same area & echo suzy Q's feelings. On a side note,I am appalled at the number of people I have come across unwilling to modify their life regarding water usage - I guess it won't really hit them until we have to truck it in. At this point my gardening plans are very scaled back. Just some herbs & maybe a few tomatoes is all my "caught" water will cover.

      5 Replies
      1. re: meatn3

        That's an excellent idea! I've got some very expensive china at my house that gets used about once a year. :) I suppose if I called ahead and asked, the restaurant folks might be willing to accomodate in such a situation. Hand washing at home takes less energy (and probably water) than machine washing for sure.

        I completely suck at food gardening, but I won't be planting any new ornamental stuff this year for sure, and I have invested in shares at a CSA, which is keeping us abreast of the water issues they expect to face this year, so I do plan to eat at home as much as possible.

        1. re: romansperson

          I'd have no problem bringing my plates and silverware in a bag for a nice meal...fair to the restaurant, fair to you.

        2. re: meatn3

          There will be no home grown tomatoes for us this year, alas. And certainly no basil and hence no pesto. In the warm weather we collect the condensation run-off from our AC unit and use that to water the herbs. The rosemary, tarragon and oregano are proving to be very hardy.

          I'm not too certain about trusting my mother's wedding china to outsiders. I'm not eager to find out if Replacements has that old a pattern. But great food still tastes great whether it's on china or Chinette. As with Suzy Q, I'd rather have water coming out of my tap.

          1. re: meatn3

            Surely everyone taking crockery home to wash will use more water than the restaurant would use washing it all together?

            1. re: Peg

              I don't know much about health dept guidelines, but I bet there are probably some prohibitions on BYOD (bring your own dishes). And I'm sure there would be someone out there who would sue if a restaurant chipped a plate!

          2. As someone who lives in the county (Union) that was the 1st in the state to impose restrictions, I'm very aware of my water usage. Paper plates-yes, disposable cutlery-no. As Romanperson stated there are disposal issues, the paper plates will degrade pretty quickly-the plastic forks will not. Also, you can wash a lot more cutlery than dishes with a few gallons of water.

            To SuzyQ, go to Auto Bell for a car wash, they recycle the water used. With some of the weather we've had this winter the damage to your car from the chemicals used on our roads can be awful. Here's a link to their environmental statement http://www.autobell.com/Environmental... . BTW, I do not work for them.

            1. IMHO,we aren't in a drought. Our incompetent leadership?, in league with developers, has had their collective heads in the sand for too long regarding restrictions on growth. Paper plates and 3 minute showers are fine, but negligible in the face of 400 unit apartment complexes springing up like weeds. (That's 800 toilets, folks.)

              1 Reply
              1. re: jiminea

                I must say I was surprised when the Stage 2 restrictions were put in place that developers were given an exemption to continue building. Not only for the water issue, but I'm not sure we need more housing space being put up during a market slump.

                Two new houses are being built less than a mile from where I live, too. There's no city water, so they'll be on a well. Let's see how long it takes for those to get sold. Probably a long time. Part of the problem with well water is that it's hard to determine how much you have left ....

              2. When I had lunch at Rue Cler a few months ago and was presented with plastic "cutlery" and plastic cups I almost fainted. We're such a band-aid society. How can the restaurants have these restrictions when people are still washing their cars in places that don't recycle water? That's just silly. I can eat off a paper plate, but perhaps I should bring my own cutlery, which doesn't necessarily have to have hundreds of gallons of 400 degree water blasted at it to get clean. Not a bad idea, but then again, part of the fun of going out is not having to do your own dishes. Maybe I'll stick to finger food for a while.

                1. restaurant dishwashers wash a lot of dishes in 90 seconds and use a lot less water and power than domestic dishwashers.

                  The South Fl drought is nowhere as bad as those in Ga and the Carolinas but nonetheless the water waste here is also pretty bad. As someone else mentioned governments have allowed for overbuilding without thinking about the consequences of the thereafter.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: smartie

                    So are you saying that using disposable items wouldn't even help much? Which would mean the quality of your restaurant experience would be affected without much gain.

                    I know my dishwasher at home uses about 7 gallons of water to do a load (it's a Bosch). How would that compare to a commercial dishwasher? Which is obviously going to do more at once.

                    1. re: romansperson

                      commercial washers, depending on type, can use as little as .75 gallons/load (or rack). many of the spiffy new ones can be programmed to re-use a portion of the washing water for additional water conservation. that's not counting the spray station (manual prewash), though, so it's a bit more water to do the dishes in a commercial washer. less water than manufacturing paperware/disposables in any case.

                  2. I live in Northern CA. We do the drought restrictions about every 7 or 8 years. We caught warm up water, used it to flush. We hooked our washers up to hoses and used the grey water to save trees and plants. We read our water meters every day to be sure we were in our restricted limits. AND those who went over, had flow restricters put on the main line to the house, name run in the paper and paid a fine. We all wore clothes a little longer, used sheets a little longer. It was a way of life. Restaurants had restrictions, but never did I see paper plates in fine dining. And I don't want to.

                    It doesn't sound like your water companies are serious about low use. They make our rules out here. And you better believe we all know how to conserve. They will cut your water off if you abuse the limits.

                    1. it uses so little water to wash dishes that it's irrelevant, and undoubtedly manufacturing the paper plates (which is also likely done in the south as well--there are a lot of paper manufacturers there) consumes more water than washing them. Hobarts (commercial dish sanitizers) recirculate most of their water. It's only a small small fraction of total water usage that's used for dishwashing anyway.

                      As someone who grew up in the south, I absolutely agree that this has been a long time coming, with unbelievable suburban sprawl, large lawns, cheap water rates, and 'growth at any cost'. You reap what you sow.

                      1. It wouldn't affect my dining out habits if all restaurants had to use paper plates. I'd hope this didn't last long though, because I would be concerned about all the trash being created. If they do impose this rule, I hope the city imposes strict rules on their largest (top 10) users of water from Falls Lake as well. The small businesses and residents shouldn't have to suffer while big business and the government still gets to use all the water they want.

                        1. I think for a fine dining type restaurant paper plates do not give the same experience as china and would contribute to a somewhat lesser experience, that said we have a pretty big problem here (i am also from raleigh) and everyone needs to do their part.
                          I agree with many of the other comments that a huge gap in leadership coupled with the huge swing in development has lead to the current problems.
                          I too will be planting a very meager garden. I live in an apartment with a community garden and do not have any way to capture enough water to keep my typical plot going. I am not a member of a CSA and would be curious to know what the farmers are saying or doing.
                          I am constantly surprised by the lack of knowlege on the drought and how few people seem to be changing their consumption habits. But more then that I am super frustrated that Raleigh hasn't stopped building permits. It seems insane to keep adding development when we know the amount of water we have won't serve the current development.
                          It's too bad we haven't seen the kind of measures and what sounds like community wide effort Janet mentions.
                          hmmm kind of a crazy post but everyone touched on so many good points i had to add my two cents!

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: jean9

                            jean you bring up some excellent points BUT a lot of the new development in our state was approved before the drought became so serious. Once permits are issued on an approved project developers can go ahead.

                            Trust me when I say my neighbors and I were initially very envious of every community in NC when we were put on restrictions in late May but as we saw the drought worsen we were very happy to have adjusted before it got so HOT. When they started talking about possibly going to stage 4 and we would have to cut our consumption in half or be fined I just about had a fit. We had already cut back so much we could not cut anymore. Thankfully our water dept will look thru billing history and figure out who has already cut back.

                            It seems the perfect green fescue lawn is more important then drinking water for some people.

                            An idea if you plant any of your garden in planters or pots, incorporate some of those "crystals" that retain water into your soil, it saved my front porch plants this past summer.

                            1. re: jean9

                              What the farmer from our CSA is telling us is that he hopes he won't have to use well water this year. Several years ago they built a pond to draw water from for irrigation - it's fed by a spring which is still doing OK, but the pond also relies on rainwater, so the level is lower now than he'd like. Last year they irrigated from March to November, which brought the pond levels down very low. That's a looong time - March-May is usually a time when you don't have to worry so much about irrigation.

                              A lot of farmers are nervous about sod farms in their areas - sod has become a more profitable business than other crops in some places and so some farmers have switched at least part of their land over to sod. And neighboring farmers are very concerned about running out of well water due to irrigation of sod crops - as we all know, grass takes a ton of water. And that ties into continued development - the largest users of sod are of course developers, who put it in around commercial developments and the more expensive homes.

                              Which brings me to another thought - would gov't try to do something about the sod farming if it came down to water for sod vs. water for food crops? Most people don't think about groundwater much, but it's just as important. Or would the industry just end up being cut back by market forces - it doesn't make sense to go to the expense and trouble of laying sod if it's just going to die because you aren't allowed to water it.

                            2. Paper plates in restaurants to conserve water seems a bit like cutting off your nose despite your face to me.

                              That aside, my big problem with your post is using sanitizer instead of hot water and soap for handwashing. Ick. One of the big components of hand washign is having your hands rinse of residue by the flowing water (pressure), then the soap and 20-30 seconds helps to kill bacteira. Sanitizer lacks the rinsing step, and as such how would it be guaranteed to kill all the leftover residue on kitchen workers' hands?

                              Think about it: someone preps beef. They move on and do veg prep for a salad that includes the aforementioned meat. Between the meat prep and the (raw) veg prep, all they do is sanitize their hands, never rinsing off the meat juices. These meat juices can be easily cross-contaminated to the salad, whcih will not be cooked. I truly think that this idea will last until the next e-coli, salmonella or staph outbreak.

                              1. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (well into Feb '06), most restaurants used paper plates, plastic utensils and plastic cups because there was a highly reduced service industry.

                                It didn't really bother me all that much - but I wasn't eating at high-end restaurants at that point. I believe the high-end restaurants still used the nice stuff.

                                I think you should be flexible with what's going on with Mother Nature. Sometimes she's a beast and you have to give up little things like glass and china. It really makes you realize what you take for granted!

                                1. Unless it was a super-fancy restaurant a paper plate/bowl really wouldn't bother me as long as it was sturdy enough/large enough to hold my meal. But if I was asked to eat with a plastic fork I'd start making a habit of BYO cutlery! I still wouldn't hold it against the restaurant though... water is precious and if there's that little of it it really needs to be treated like gold!

                                  1. If the food and service were good enough I would eat off of the tabletop providing it was clean.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Paul Weller

                                      You should come to my mother-in-law's house - you could seriously eat off the floor there, lol. But it takes water to clean all that stuff too. :)

                                    2. I'm a Torontonian who has been living in Brisbane, Australia for the past seven months. I have never had to worry about drought conditions until moving here. What enlightenment! We just went up to Level 6 water restrictions in November.

                                      Now, I don't profess to be an expert on water preservation techniques after only being here for such a short time, but I will tell you that the concept of water conservation is truly engrained into the fabric of the Australian culture - and boy, do they take it seriously! (In fact, sadly a man was actually murdered in Sydney not so many months ago after an altercation because he was watering his front lawn with a hose!)

                                      I can also tell you that I have never, ever been to a restaurant where I have been served on a paper plate, or where the staff only used hand sanitizer. This is (in my opinion) a complete band-aid to the problem, likely thought up by a politician who wants to brag about coming up with a solution. This would completely go against the reduce/reuse/recycle culture also embraced by Australians. In fact, most restaurants automatically bring a bottle/pitcher of water to the table, which is something relatively unheard of back in Canada.

                                      How do they manage? I think a lot of what Janet from N. California mentions above is applicable here. Water usage is strictly monitored by the water companies. 140 litres (37 US gallons)/day/person. If there is excess usage, you had better have a very good reason, or else they will install a water-flow restrictor to your line. Ironically, the people here actually beat that target, using only an average of 127 litres/person/day. It really is just a way of life - and one that as an outsider, I have to admire.

                                      Other things I've noticed are that all fountains in the parks and showers at the beaches are turned off. The toilet systems here have dual flush modes (a 'half' and a 'full' flush). People do not wash their cars, water their lawns, fill their pools with tap water, etc. The government has good subsidies for installing water tanks that capture rainwater to fill the pool, etc. The dreaded 'four minute' shower - I don't time myself, but I can say without a doubt I don't linger in there like I used to. Capturing grey water from the laundry, or from the shower to water plants, it's all very, very hard-core down here.

                                      All this to say that this girl from Toronto only now is embarrassed to realize how much of a water glutton she was back home.