Tom Urban moved to Charleston from Vermont, one of the greenest, cleanest, most-energy efficient states in the country and was shocked that nobody recycled much less composted at the restaurant where he worked. "Nobody thinks about that stuff," he says. "In Vermont, it's the norm to recycle, reduce, and reuse."
He started just trying to recycle glass bottles and even that proved a hard sell. "It's just changing people's mindsets," he says.
Slowly, Urban has indeed changed minds at Ms. Rose's Fine Foods, the West Ashley restaurant that he manages and that just received Platinum status in the S.C. Aquarium's Good Catch program. Urban says last year's Strawless Summer campaign spearheaded by the Surfrider Foundation locally was the first big step. Surf Rider enlisted 70 restaurants locally to stop offering straws as a way to prevent and build awareness about the millions and millions of straws that end up in the waterways, and he eagerly signed up Ms. Rose's.
"At the same time, the Zucker family (which owns Ms. Rose's) did a big push for the local sea turtle hospital [at the S.C. Aquarium]," says Urban, who felt like that commitment made sense for him to push to do the right thing when it comes to reducing the restaurant's waste and focusing on sustainability.
"Smart Recycling came in about that time too," he says. "They're a really cool industrial compost business."
The company provides bins for compost collection and picks them up weekly and takes them to the Bees Ferry Compost Facility run by Charleston County.
"But that alone is difficult because a lot of people don’t know what composting is," says Urban. "Even during my work week, I'm pulling out garbage and telling people what can and can't go in there."
According to reports from Smart Recycling, Ms. Rose's diverted an average of 2 tons of food waste per month from the landfill over four months in 2017. That's not an insignificant amount. Still, Urban can feel a bit discouraged since he continues to work hard to get his employees to buy in.
"People will throw stuff in the trash even though the compost bin is right there," he says with disbelief.
Urban's efforts have reduced plastic to-go-ware at the restaurant, switched plastic bags to paper, replaced plastic straws with compostable ones, and in order to meet the S.C. Aquarium's Good Catch requirements, convinced the chef to order at least 50 percent of the fish they serve from the South Atlantic region.
He says because of the Zucker family ownership, they are able to do the right thing by serving sustainable and local seafood and not just focus on having the lowest food costs.
Because of Urban's work, Ms. Rose's Fine Foods is now a platinum partner of Good Catch. The program started out focusing on sustainable fish species but has since expanded to include a commitment plastic reduction because of the negative impact plastic is having on the oceans. Other platinum partners include FIG, The Ordinary, The Glass Onion, Ms. Rose's sister restaurant 492 and a handful of others.
While Urban is glad they made platinum status, he points out, "It's not like you get an award or anything." Instead, he just wishes more restaurants participated and cared about reducing their carbon footprint.
"I hope more people do it. It just takes one person owning it," he says. "But sometimes I feel like I'm swimming up a river, it's never ending."
But at least that river isn't full of plastic.