By Léo Azambuja

Left to right, Jose Cortez and Erin Keller, of The Local; Anni Caporuscio, of Small Town Coffee; Rebekah Magers, Ocean Friendly Restaurants coordinator at Surfrider Foundation; and Kristin Leikam, of Street Burger. Photo by Léo Azambuja

We love to go out to eat good food in good company. But all that fun comes at a price. The waste the service industry generates — especially from single-use items — often ends up in the ocean and on our beaches.

Aiming to turn the tide on ocean pollution and beach trash, Surfrider Foundation is teaming up with a growing number of restaurants that are pledging to switch from trouble-makers to problem-solvers by joining the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program.

“The program is focusing on reducing Styrofoam, or expanded polystyrene, and reducing plastic straws in restaurants; that’s what we’re focusing on, a lot of the single-use utensils,” said Rebekah Magers, Ocean Friendly Restaurants coordinator at Surfrider Foundation, Kaua‘i Chapter. “There are four main criteria, plus six optional ones. The restaurants have to meet at least three optional criteria.”

Surfrider launched the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program in Hawai‘i and California on Earth Day 2016. In August 2017, the program went national. As of July, there were 29 restaurants on Kaua‘i that are part of the program. Statewide, the number of restaurants in the program is already at 207.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal is seen here among plastic debris at Laysan Island in 2017. Photo by Alana Eagle/Civil Beat

“By being a member, we offer discounts through businesses that are offering compostables or biodegradable products to restaurants. We are also offering advertising, social media exposure, and we are working on ads,” Magers said. Members are also listed in the Surfrider Foundation and Ocean Friendly Restaurants websites.

The nationwide goal of 500 restaurants in the program for 2018 has already been surpassed. Last July, more than 600 restaurants across the country were locked in the program. Besides Hawai‘i, restaurants in California, Florida, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington State have already joined the Ocean Friendly Restaurants.

The four mandatory criteria are:

  1. No expanded polystyrene (aka Styrofoam)
  2. Proper recycling practices
  3. Only reusable tableware for onsite dining, and disposable utensils for takeout only upon request
  4. No plastic bags offered for takeout orders

Restaurants must pick at least three of the six optional criteria:

  1. Plastic straws provided only upon request
  2. No beverages sold in plastic bottles
  3. Discount for customers with reusable cups, mugs, bags, etc.
  4. Vegetarian or vegan food options offered on a regular basis; and/or all seafood must be a “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” as defined by Seafood Watchor certified as sustainable
  5. Water conservation efforts, such as low-flow faucets and toilets
  6. Energy efficiency efforts such as LED lighting and Energy Star appliances

AN albatross chick lays among plastic waste on Midway Atoll in 2017. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Restaurants that meet all 10 criteria are recognized as a Platinum Level Ocean Friendly Restaurant. On Kaua‘i, there were seven restaurants at the Platinum Level as of July, including Small Town Coffee, Street Burger, Aloha Aina Juice Café, Imua Coffee Roasters, Kauai Beer Co., Papaya’s Kitchen and The Fresh Shave.

Before Kristin and Aaron Leikam opened Street Burger in Wailua almost three years ago, they decided their new restaurant would generate the least amount of waste possible, from the kitchen to the dining room to the restrooms.

“We try to recycle and reuse as much as we possibly can,” said Kristin Leikam, adding that all the food waste goes to animals rather than trash, straws are only given upon request, restrooms are equipped with low-flow toilets, and many other Earth-friendly practices. So when Street Burger was approached to join the program, there wasn’t much more that the restaurant had to do to earn a certification.

“One of our staff, Angela Hoover, was a representative for Ocean Friendly Restaurants; and she said, ‘I want to join you in this program,’” Leikam said. “It was amazing, when she came to make sure we were complying, we were actually already doing all the things to meet the certification.”

A carcass of a black-footed albatross chick, with its stomach filled with plastic. Photo courtesy of Dan Clarkfuss/NOAA

Anni Caporuscio, owner of Small Town Coffee, joined the program after attending a county-sponsored workshop on waste management. Caporuscio was asked to do a presentation on waste generated by her “very small coffee truck.” She said she went through all the cups, lids, napkins, bags and all the little bits that make a coffee business work.

“I’m one food truck out of over 80 food trucks on the island that primarily do single-use items. So, to do the math on how much waste that is, it’s huge, it’s off the charts. So I kind of watched people sort of wilt in the workshop, like, ‘oh my God this is so much stuff and waste,’” she said.

Following the workshop, Caporuscio started to brainstorm about what else she could do to reduce waste. A lot of it is unavoidable, she said, but she still tries to create awareness, and reuse things as much as possible.

Jose Cortez and his wife, Erin Keller, opened The Local restaurant in Old Kapa‘a Town in November 2016, and from the start, the attitude was leaving the least amount of footprint.

Plastic debris spread all over Polihale earlier this year. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“It was part of the whole idea since the beginning. We didn’t want to use single-use plastic. We wanted to stay away from all that stuff,” said Cortez, adding his wife grew up off the grid, and was always very conscious about the environment.

“Since we joined the program, we’ve had no plastic straws, only stainless steel reusable straws, all compostable biodegradable to-go containers, all the appliances are Energy Star, we changed the lighting to LED, we compost, we recycle, we do everything that we can to minimize our impact,” Cortez said.

Magers joined Surfrider in February 2017, becoming a member, beach cleanup volunteer and Ocean Friendly Restaurants coordinator at the same time.

The Local. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“I’ve been in the service industry since I was 14 years old and I’ve seen a lot of waste happen in the restaurant and hospitality business,” she said. “I’ve seen plastic cups being tossed left and right. I’ve seen them being left on the beaches. I see people order huge orders, and just have Styrofoam boxes stacked sky-high full of food, and then I’ve seen those Styrofoam boxes in the same beach cleanups that I’ve done. So it’s a personal thing because I’m in that industry, and it really hurts to go to the beaches and clean up the debris that I’m handing out to customers.”

The Eastern Garbage Patch — a giant area in the North Pacific Ocean littered with floating plastic waste — was first discovered by Capt. Charles Moore in 1997. At that time, the area was estimated to be the size of Texas. Today, it has grown to be at least twice as large as Texas and potentially much larger, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Small Town Coffee. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The Eastern Garbage Patch is actually only one of many garbage patches across the globe, each located in areas of ocean-current convergences. In the North Pacific alone there are two, the Eastern and the Western Garbage patches, plus a Subtropical Convergence Zone above Hawai‘i littered with floating plastic.

A lot of the plastic in the ocean ends up in the stomachs of seabirds, fish and marine mammals that mistakes plastic for food. It also ends up in remote beaches that would otherwise be considered pristine, including on the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are home to many endangered species.

Honolulu-based Civil Beat reporter and photographer Nathan Eagle and his wife, Alana Eagle went to Laysan Island in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands on assignment to shoot a multi-media series last year. They saw extraordinary things, good and bad.

Street Burger. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“It was astonishing how much trash had washed up on this tiny island some 800 miles northwest of Kaua‘i. No humans are even allowed within 200 miles without a permit. Seeing endangered seals and birds laying around with all these bottles and fishing buoys and tires and car seats and so much more — it makes you rethink your consumerism and the effect it has on our planet,” Nathan Eagle said.

As we continue to consume — and throw away — plastic, scientists estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, ton per ton.

Magers said being the coordinator for this program really fits her. Because she has been in the service industry, she said, she can relate to restaurant owners, managers and servers, and talk to them to try to get them to switch to an Ocean Friendly Restaurant.

Marine debris at Laysan Island. Photo by Alana Eagle/Civil Beat

“Styrofoam is one of the top-10 things that are found in the beach cleanups, and straws are one of the top-five things,” she said. “Those are little things we can easily change in the restaurants.”

A lot of organizations, including Surfrider, are already working with local, county and state lawmakers to make changes at legislative level, Magers said.

“But these kinds of programs can help to change policies at a higher level when the community stands behind them and people show they support these initiatives,” she said. And restaurants are already showing lawmakers that getting rid of single-use plastics is not hurting their business.

Magers said she is aware Surfrider is an organization that focuses a lot on coastal communities, so she’s hoping that as more people across the country recognize the Ocean Friendly Restaurants initiative, other inland organizations will follow suit and promote similar programs.

Visit and for more information and for a full list of Ocean Friendly Restaurants.