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Baja Fresh Expands Use of Greener Plates, Food Wrappers and Bags

After a 16-month pilot, the Baja Fresh Mexican Grill is using more eco-friendly plates, burrito and taco wrappers and takeout bags in the 255 restaurants it operates or franchises.

The switch to more environmentally responsible restaurant supplies is part of the company's "Earth Fresh" initiative, which began in December 2009 with testing of the products in eight California restaurants. The 21-year-old chain, which serves "fast-casual" Mexican food with entrees emphasizing fresh meat and vegetables, is based in Cypress, Calif.

The company said this week that the new supplies were in all facilities by March 15. The plates are made from a byproduct of wheat harvests, certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute and are designed to disintegrate quickly at professionally managed composting facilities, according to Baja Fresh Senior Marketing Director Jerry DeLucia.

The wrapping paper for food items is unbleached and made from 100 percent recycled material. The company estimates that using the unbleached product instead of bleached paper contributes to a 46 percent reduction in wastewater, a 21 percent drop in wood pulp use, 16 percent less solid waste and a 10 percent cut in greenhouse gas production.

The paper bags used in the restaurants are also made from unbleached material and contain a minimum of 70 percent postconsumer material, and the plastic bags used for to-go orders are made with at least 50 percent recycled material, DeLucia said. Both types of bags are recyclable and the ink used on them is water based.

The company is also exploring greener alternatives for cups and cup carriers, bowl-style plastic containers used for entrees and cutlery, DeLucia said.

"Our purchasing department is looking to replace (items) with products that are made from recycled content, or more recycled content, and are recyclable," he said. "We're pretty passionate about this."

The challenge, according to DeLucia, is finding alternatives that do the job, are cost-effective and are produced in enough volume to handle the chain's needs. For example, a restaurant can use as many as 50,000 bowls a year, he said, and doing the math for 255 sites adds up to "a lot of bowls."

"I want to stress to you that if this were easy, we would have replaced everything in the restaurant already," DeLucia said.

In addition to seeking more environmentally responsible supplies, the company is gaining traction with a campaign involving reusable plastic cups, DeLucia said. Customers who buy a cup with a large fountain drink for $1.99 and bring it back for their next order, can get the cup refilled for 99 cents, plus tax. On average, the deal saves customers about 30 cents for a beverage, depending on pricing at various restaurants, DeLucia said.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user jimg944.

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