Intern: Mariah Bader gives a presentation to business owner Aimee Newberry on eco-friendly to go containers and utensils on June 15 at reTHink on South 13th Street. 
Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza
Intern: Mariah Bader gives a presentation to business owner Aimee Newberry on eco-friendly to go containers and utensils on June 15 at reTHink on South 13th Street. Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza
With help from a summer intern who’s a McKinney Climate Fellow at Indiana University, reTHink, Inc. has embarked on a project to encourage local restaurants to significantly reduce the amount of Styrofoam and plastic they use in their to-go packaging. Mariah Bader is currently working on a master’s degree in Public and Environmental Affairs. When Shikha Bhattacharyya, executive director of reTHink, applied to IU for an intern, the school offered her three candidates to interview.

Bader had listed reTHink as her No. 1 priority of all groups who had applied, so they’ve combined to work on a project Bhattacharyya had conceived. The program is funded by the Environmental Resilience Institute, but reTHink had to kick in $1,000 of its own to be part of the project.

“With reTHink, I just liked that there was a lot going on — they have the store, they have this project going on, they have the gardens, so much that I thought was really cool,” Bader said, who added that she was additionally attracted by the fact that it’s a nonprofit. “The project is amazing, but just reTHink in general. I was at their open house, and that was cool because I saw the community come together to support them. They’re really doing stuff for this community and I’m contributing to that with this project.”

Bader, whose mother calls her “a tree-hugger,” is originally from Arizona, where her family includes a number of Native Americans for whom environmentalism is a longtime part of their culture.

“We treat Mother Nature as she treats us — it’s just that mentality that you don’t harm something that’s not doing anything to you,” said Bader. “The earth has given us life. We’ve kind of lost sight of that. We think Mother Earth is here for us. No — it’s a collaboration, it’s teamwork.”

Bader professes her admiration for all Bhattacharyya — whom she calls “Dr. B” — accomplishes. “It’s really about the one that’s leading [an organization],” she said. “At the open house, and seeing that she knows everybody by their name and face, she’s dedicated to that and the store just shows everything. I was shocked that there was a zero-waste store; I’ve never been in one. I know she has other jobs, but she wants to do this. I think that tells you a lot about a person.

“I want to do this as well someday — my hope is to make some small difference in the middle of this large catastrophe that’s going on,” she added.

For her part, Bhattacharyya has been impressed with Bader: “Initially, she was a little hesitant talking to people, but she’s getting more comfortable.”

Bader has met with a number of restaurateurs, and gives them a presentation explaining that though items made from Styrofoam and plastics are frequently used for but a brief period of time, they can sit in landfills for centuries. She advocates for biodegradable to-go packaging, pointing out that the added expense is relatively negligible (20-30 cents more per container), and recommends that restaurants provide plastic straws only when patrons request them. Likewise, she suggests that restaurants only provide plastic utensils for to-go items upon request, the thinking being consumers will be taking the food home where they have their own knives and forks.

She also takes a survey with the restaurateur about their attitudes concerning Styrofoam and plastic vs. biodegradable items. The public is invited to participate in the survey, as well, at wabashrethinks.com.

Initially, the goal was to approach five separate eateries, but Bader has surpassed that number and continues to pursue others.

“We’ve had a lot of interest,” Bhattacharyya said. “We haven’t met the resistance we were expecting, but that’s probably because these were the people who were interested. Some businesses didn’t respond, but other people having been contacting us. We didn’t expect them to reach out to us, but that happened.”

Cheyne O’Laughlin, owner of Charlie’s Pub and Grub, said Bader “was well-organized, she was personable. We took her information and we’re gonna price out and see what makes sense — whether we meet in the middle or go full steam ahead.”

He’s convinced of environmentalism’s significance: “It’s a high level of importance with the environment. We need to make changes, and we all need to pitch in.”

Emily Malavolti, owner of Corsair Cafe & Coffee, said, “She was very knowledgeable. She told me a couple of things I wasn’t aware of — that it takes 400 years for Styrofoam to break down into smaller particles, but those particles never go away.”

Malavolti reported that she’s investigating the customer option for biodegradable items. “We would like to cut out Styrofoam,” she said.

Last month, Bader met with Cathy Azar, co-owner and manager of the Saratoga. Azar listened intently and agreed to do further research, but noted that the restaurant had yet to fully recover from the pandemic, that its profit margin was thin and that she was loathe to bump prices up to take on the added expense of biodegradable items.

But Bader was encouraged by others’ responses. She said Charlie’s Pub and Grub’s O’Laughlin “was incredibly enthusiastic at what can be done to reduce their waste. He was incredibly thoughtful and was open to ideas presented.” Corsair’s Malavolti “is extremely interested and eager to use more eco-friendly to-go alternatives.”

Bader noted that a couple of restaurants are already environmentally friendly. “Tolly’s has been participating in sustainable initiatives for over three years now,” she said. “Seeing that there are restaurants in the community who want to make a difference in the world and did it on their own is remarkable.” She added, “Ferm Fresh already uses eco-friendly to-go alternatives, so our meeting was filled with brainstorming ideas of how they can further their sustainable initiative. The owners [Anthony & Megan Gossett] were also very helpful in determining what worked best for them regarding eco-friendly to-go alternatives that could possibly be used with other restaurants.”

Moreover, Bader met with Amosami Cheesecake Company’s owner Aimee Newberry before the restaurant opened, which eliminated barriers such as cost and customer buy-in that established businesses would encounter. Umi Grill’s assistant manager explained the restaurant’s cultural differences, including that eco-friendly options would have to present Japanese cuisine in the manner it is intended to be presented.

Babo’s Cafe, offering homemade Balkan cuisine, Italian restaurant Alimentari da Pesavento, Sons Spice Co. and Little Bear Coffee also participated in the study.

One July 27, Bader will make a presentation at a lunch at reTHink that will draw local politicians, representative from the Chamber of Commerce and business leaders. The community is invited to attend.

Bader concedes that it can get daunting to devote one’s life to protecting the environment when even the Supreme Court doesn’t seem interested in doing so.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we produce so much — how can we come back?’” she said. “I know that there’s more to this than me, and I want to make sure that future generations have just as good a place as I did, even if it wasn’t the best — things are going downhill as it is. Taking classes and knowing that there are people out there who are trying something gives me hope.”
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