“We’re just a small team trying to do the right thing” – Doing the right thing is one of the mottos that Lisa Bergström, co-owner and Operations Manager of Pingala Café and Eatery in Burlington, and her team live by. Pingala is a Sanskrit word that, among other things, means ‘sun energy’. The vegan food-truck-inspired eatery is laser focused on providing delicious, nourishing, affordable foods while responsibly sourcing ingredients and packaging.
“We believe in looking at the whole cycle when it comes to all aspects of our business, from the food we serve to the packaging we buy,” Bergström said.
Like many sustainability-minded restaurants that saw using compostable containers as the “greenest” way to package their food, Pingala Café invested in 100% compostable to-go containers early on. However, when CSWD announced that it would no longer accept compostable foodware to keep plastic lookalikes out of the composting process and ensure the quality of the Green Mountain Compost products they sell, Lisa knew Pingala and other to-go heavy restaurants would need new solutions.
“We needed to go back to the basics, and look at how we can reduce packaging (following ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’),” she told us.
Lisa worked closely with CSWD to ensure that Pingala Café would be able to meet their sustainability goals in the most cost-effective way. Ethan Hausman, CSWD’s Business Outreach Coordinator consulted with Lisa to provide more background about the commercial composting process, technical guidance navigating foodware options, and resources for educating staff and customers.
“It was very encouraging to have someone to bounce ideas off of,” she said. “It was great to have someone knowledgeable and equally passionate about waste so accessible to us.”
Pingala Café’s focus on reducing packaging meant making changes to what they served and how they served it. They started by offering more handheld food options such as sandwiches and wraps, eliminating plated items, as well as simplifying containers, using one for every menu item to reduce inventory.
Bergström and her team have reduced the Café’s reliance on single-use products by switching to serving smoothies in reusable plastic cups. The Pingala branding on the cups includes instructions that the cups can be reused— either by customers or by the Café, if customers return them– or recycled. Reuse is always more environmentally friendly than recycling, and choosing cups made from polypropylene (often stamped as #5/PP on the bottom)– a high-value plastic that is among those most likely to be recycled into new products– also benefits sustainability.
That’s because plastics are not equally recyclable. Containers made from polystyrene (#6/PS)–the plastic also used to make Styrofoam–will likely wind up in a landfill, even if discarded in the recycling bin, because there is so little demand for polystyrene in the marketplace. The good news is that less and less foodware is made from #6 plastic and there is a significant movement to stop using it completely by 2025.
There is strong demand from manufacturers for polypropylene, on the other hand, and Pingala’s cups will be turned into new plastic products—most likely paint cans!
“We implemented a discount system, 10% off your next smoothie, to encourage customers to bring back the plastic cup,” Lisa said of the reusable smoothie cups. “It’s still a growing program that needs more consumer education, but a lot of people really appreciate receiving their smoothie in a reusable cup, and” she added “the branding on a slick and sturdy cup is good marketing for us.”
Pingala Café also changed up their waste station, moving from three streams down to one. Previously they relied on customers to sort their compostable items, recycling, and trash; now, customers simply return their tray with cups, utensils, food scraps and bowls to one station. Throughout each day, the Pingala team goes above and beyond to sort through the waste, putting napkins in with food scraps and making sure any recyclables are captured separately. It has proven to be the most reliable way to ensure that their waste streams are not contaminated.
“It feels really good knowing we are doing the right thing. Because at the end of the day we are a mission driven company; we do what we do to make choices that benefit the planet easy, accessible and fun by providing outrageously delicious food (served mindfully) and an all-welcoming vibe”.