As if the laundry list of restrictions for restaurants opening amid the new coronavirus aren’t enough, some eateries in South Jersey have been imposing even more conditions in preparing and serving meals — strict guidelines aimed at environmental concerns.

Restaurant take-out is one of the top contributors to single-use plastic pollution, according to the Surfrider Foundation, a national, nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect the world’s oceans and beaches. The Ocean Friendly Restaurant program, which includes 25 local businesses in South Jersey, is one of those networks.

Participating restaurants agree to actively reduce their plastic footprint by eliminating the use of single-use plastic and plastic foam. Instead, the emphasis is on using only paper straws, and offering reusable foodware rather than disposables when dining inside the establishment.

To step it up a notch, many of the restaurants in southern New Jersey are making an effort to use locally grown food, offering locally caught seafood. Others are also discouraging eating red meat and employing conservation measures like rain barrel water collectors.

“The Ocean Friendly Restaurants program started in New Jersey about four years ago to bring attention to the wasteful use of plastics by restaurants, especially in their takeout, where it’s really hard to get people to do the right thing,” said Bill Steumpfig, co-chair of the South Jersey branch of Surfrider.

Steumpfig said the response from restaurants and customers has been very positive. Restaurants get added exposure from a Surfrider marketing program and customers get to leave feeling good about their dining decision, which hopefully sparks a behavior change.

“We really wanted to do this because we have a natural love and desire to protect our ocean,” said Sarah Visalli, owner of Bandanas Mexican Grill, in Wildwood Crest. Bandanas is the first restaurant to join the program in southern New Jersey.

“Any seaside town economy depends on the health of the ocean. As business people, we have a responsibility to implement sustainable business practices if we want to keep doing what we’re doing.”

You won’t find any plastic when you order takeout from Bandanas. But you will find locally caught, and sustainably caught, seafood, Visalli said. And tucked away behind the restaurant, Visalli tends to planters filled with vegetables and herbs she grows for use in preparing meals.

“The coolest thing about this program is being able to contribute to the health of the environment,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to be able to implement sustainable business practices.”

The biggest reward, she said, is starting a dialogue about sustainable practices with customers. Another reward is watching parents explain to their children why ocean conservation is so important. The kids love the beach, she says, so it’s important to teach them how to protect it.

“Teaching the next generation about it and opening up the dialogue for people has been really, really enriching for us,” she said.

While some customers at Bandannas were not aware of the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program, once they were told about it, they all agreed it is a great idea and one that will keep them coming back.

“I think it’s ideal, especially since we’re right on the ocean, to be more environmentally conscious and responsible,” said Kelsey Rudzinski, from Scranton, Pennsylvania, as she waited for her order.

“A lot of people think that pollution is a mostly visual problem, that it’s unsightly and it’s dirty,” Carol Steumpfig said. “I don’t think they realize how destructive it is. It’s destroying the environment.”

Carol Steumpfig is an avid sailor who completed six transatlantic trips in small sailboats. On one of those trips she saw a large sea turtle breach the surface and swallow a large latex balloon that it may have mistaken for a jellyfish. Sea life depends on the ocean to be safe, she said, and the amount of debris floating in the water creates a hazardous environment. According to Steumpfigs and Surfrider, much of that debris is generated by restaurants.

The Surfrider Foundation is also offering participating restaurants free rain barrel collectors, made by the Steumpfigs, as part of the Ocean Friendly Gardens program. The couple constructs and decorates the rain barrels at their home in Tuckahoe. The water collected can be used for gardening to offset using drinkable water for outside use and keeps large amounts of water out of the drainage system.

Behind the Steumpfig home, their ocean friendly garden is filled with native flowers and plants watered by three rain barrel collectors attached to their rain gutters.

One of the rain collectors went to Goji Juice Bar, in Somers Point, where the water is used for its organic garden that sits in front of the restaurant off New Road.

“We found out last week that one inch of rain across a 250 square-foot roof produces about 50 gallons of water,” said Goji owner Scott Lindsay.

“We were thrilled to become a part of the Ocean Friendly Restaurant program,” said co-owner Julia Lindsay. “It matched our values as a company. We strive for sustainability.”

Goji offers reusable bottles for their juices, Julia Lindsay said, which decreases waste, and customers feel good about being a part of the sustainability effort.

For a list of Ocean Friendly Restaurants in South Jersey visit southjersey.surfrider.org/programs/ocean-friendly-restaurants

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project.

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