High Price Of Sustainability
PG bakery slapped with fees for using non-disposable eating ware.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Two young women in flip-flops step up to the counter at Pacific Grove’s Central Avenue Bakery. They peer at the cookies, confections and quiche displayed behind glass, at the freshly baked bread on a shelf behind the counter. They peruse the coffee bar and the food menu offering healthy salads, sandwiches and soups.
“It’s organic and fair trade,” one woman assures the other.
The bakery’s owners make ecological sustainability a cornerstone of their business. In the interest of minimizing waste, they serve food and drinks on glass or ceramic dishes with metal utensils; disposable packaging is reserved for take-out orders only. But the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency (MRWPCA) recently served the bakery a stiff bill reflecting that green-minded decision.
In mid-September, a letter from the MRWPCA informed the bakery that it had been in the wrong billing category throughout the two and a half years of its operation. Under the assumption that it was preparing food off-site, its bimonthly water fee had been about $44. But because the bakery makes food in-house and serves meals on glassware, its new bimonthly bill would be $485. The letter also noted an unpaid sewer capacity fee of more than $19,000.
“I felt like I’ve been hit in the solar plexus,” says co-owner Tina Thompson, sitting at one of the bakery’s tables in a knitted red beret, munching on homemade hummus. “I would have never opened this place if they had been upfront about this.”
Most of the new fees reflect the agency’s accounting error, says MRWPCA’s Julie Wardell. But she admits that some of the fees – about $9,000 of the sewer capacity charge and $100 of the bimonthly bill – reflect the fact that the bakery uses glassware instead of disposables. Dishwashing creates a higher flow through the wastewater treatment system, she explains.
The logic strikes Thompson as ironic. “They’re developing the daylights out of Fort Ord, and the water and sewer use is gonna go through the roof,” she says. “And yet they’re going to punish me for doing the ecologically right thing?”
Thompson contacted PG Mayor Dan Cort, who sits on the MRWPCA board. He told her he’d go to bat for the bakery. “I am really upset that she is not able to operate her business without paying what essentially amounts to a fine,” he says. “That’s one of the problems with the way the [MRWPCA] works. You do things that are sustainable, and you get penalized for it.”
But customer service manager Lindsay Synsteby says the new charges aren’t a penalty so much as a goof-up, which the MRWPCA corrected when staff realized the bakery had been miscategorized. “We didn’t know they were preparing food there,” she says.
Synsteby says that the new charges need not shut down the bakery – MRWPCA will work with the owners to explore other ways to reduce their bill. “We’re not in the business of putting anybody out of business,” she says. “We accommodate very well here.”
Thompson finally spoke with Synsteby on Oct. 22. The two arranged an affordable payment plan, alleviating Thompson’s fear that the bakery would have to close.
But the question of waste versus water continues to loom large in the county, where business owners factor water and solid waste disposal bills into decisions such as whether to use glassware or disposable paper, plastic and Styrofoam. More waste generation brings higher charges from garbage collection companies.
“It raises a number of questions, kind of like, ‘Paper or plastic?’ ” says Monterey Regional Waste Management District spokesman Jeff Lindenthal. “Conservation is going to continue to be an issue, whether it’s solid waste or water. How can we be most resourceful? I guess there’s no easy answer.”