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A SLICK APPROACH TO ENVIRONMENTALISM : Many businesses say they are recycling at least part of their waste, but others find that old habits are hard to break.

December 06, 1990|BRENNAN CHASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A lunch patron at a downtown Ventura sandwich shop was disappointed recently to learn that the store's tuna isn't a dolphin-safe brand. Disappointment turned to dismay when the shop owner revealed that he is a marine biologist well aware of the fatal hazard that drift nets, used by many tuna fishing boats, pose to dolphins and other sea life.

"I would think," stammered the customer, "you'd be more concerned about this issue."

The proprietor shrugged. "I use Styrofoam too," he said, confessing to another environmental offense. "I don't feel good about it, but I'm trying to run a business."

The scope and mood of April's Earth Day celebration seemed to suggest that after more than two decades, the environmental movement had finally turned the corner. Environmental awareness had insinuated itself into the American psyche. Being green was mainstream.

That, at least, was the perception. But many environmentalists were demoralized by California voters' decisive defeat of the most ambitious environmental propositions on the November ballot. (In Ventura County, the opposition to the Big Green and Forests Forever initiatives was proportionately greater than it was statewide.) If environmental reform hasn't even managed to penetrate the local sandwich shop, is the environmental movement more rhetoric than reality?

The Times recently surveyed a variety of Ventura County companies to learn what, if anything, they are doing to reduce their environmental impact.

"I think we all have to do whatever we can," said Kris Pustina, co-owner of Franky's restaurant in Ventura. The challenge, she added, is "trying to find ways to do what you can and still stay in business." You won't find Styrofoam at Franky's and, for a while, Pustina took tuna off the menu and offered pilchard instead. Now she serves dolphin-safe tuna (line-caught rather than netted) that she said costs her twice as much as she used to pay.

Ed Warren serves dolphin-safe tuna at his Busy Bee Cafe in Ventura--at least it says dolphin safe on the can--but he admits that he has made few other concessions to environmental protection. His paper supplies are made of virgin fiber, and he still uses plastic foam cups and containers. "I suppose we should look more into alternatives," Warren said. "But you get set in your ways and you fall into patterns, and you think, 'Oh well. . . .' "

Gerald A. Scott, owner and president of Canteen of Coastal California, which operates catering trucks and industrial cafeterias in the area, reacted similarly when asked if he has looked into using recycled materials. "I don't have time for these kinds of things," he said.

Patagonia Inc., the Ventura outdoor clothing company, analyzed its waste and determined that well over half of its trash is paper. "We don't make anything," Public Affairs Director Kevin Sweeney said. (Patagonia designs and distributes its garments but contracts other firms to do the manufacturing.)

"We do as much polluting as a law firm," Sweeney said.

Patagonia has made a point of finding and buying recycled paper for its copying machines. In contrast, Nordman, Cormany, Hair & Compton, the county's largest law firm with some 70 employees, has never considered using anything but virgin paper. "Nobody's ever approached me and said that there is a certified recycled photocopy paper," said Kent Davis, the firm's administrative officer.

Patagonia uses recycled paper for its letterhead stationery. Nordman, Cormany, Hair & Compton does not. "Law firms can't do that," Davis said. "The recycled paper just isn't high enough quality."

At the urging of several employees, Bank of A. Levy's corporate headquarters in Ventura recently began recycling most of its considerable output of wastepaper. Most of the paper it buys, however, is virgin. But apparently that is going to change. Recycling firms, bank Vice President Jack Nelson said, "are having a lot of cooperation with getting people to recycle paper, but then there's no demand for recycled paper. So we are going to be requesting of our vendors that they make recycled paper available to us."

Asked if the bank, in deciding where to put its money, weighs environmental factors along with the usual financial criteria, Nelson said: "I really don't think that plays a part in our investment decisions."

Procter & Gamble recently announced an investment decision of its own. In October, the company said it is making available $20 million in grants to communities interested in constructing large-scale composting centers like one that P&G helped develop in St. Paul, Minn. About 50% to 70% of America's municipal garbage--notably food, wood, paper and yard wastes--can be composted into humus for soil enrichment.

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