Kerry Diamond, the owner of Smith Canteen in Brooklyn, has spent the better part of this year trying to reduce the amount of single-use plastic that her coffee shop uses. As part of this Green Canteen initiative, the shop switched from plastic straws to paper ones, it started transitioning away from plastic lids, and it began offering a 10 percent discount to any customer who walked in with a reusable cup. Her goals are ambitious ones: to become the greenest coffee shop in Brooklyn and to be 100-percent single-use-plastic-free by January 1, 2019.
Of course, there are challenges and pitfalls to taking that approach, but Diamond couldn’t have anticipated this one: Earlier this week, she received a $300 fine from the New York City Department of Sanitation, all because of the placement of a signboard outside the shop. (Yes, the same kind of double-sided chalkboard that you’ve walked into while you scrolled through Instagram pictures of coffee shop chalkboards). The irony of this particular summons is that, at the time it was written, Smith Canteen was bragging about the 2,057 coffee cups its Green Canteen program had kept out of the city’s landfills.
“You're welcome, Department of Sanitation,” Diamond wrote on Facebook. “I've been spending a lot of money and time trying to figure out waste reduction, composting, and single-use plastic alternatives at the Canteen, so this really burns me. We keep our corner storefront as tidy as possible, sweep regularly, clean up all the litter that blows down the street, and take care of our tree pit like good citizens.”
She told the New York Daily News that she’d recently written the message both to keep her current customers engaged with the shop’s initiatives, and to let newbies know about its approach. “We try so hard to be good and then to get kind of smacked down that way, it’s just kind of a bummer,” she said.
Fortunately, it became less of a bummer after the Daily News inquired about the fine; the Department ultimately agreed to drop it. “We’ve investigated the incident and have determined that we will withdraw action on this notice of violation because it appears as if the sign is within the legal three-foot limit, the street is not a zero-tolerance block and there is ample pedestrian access to the sidewalk,” Department of Sanitation spokesperson Vito Turso said. “We encourage the shopkeeper to continue helping to keep cups out of landfills by all legal means.” (And now we’re curious about what kind of illegal means there are.)
Diamond said that she hopes that the Department will be more proactive when it comes to helping small businesses go green—or greener. She expects that her own Bring Your Own Cup program will keep 3,000 coffee cups out of the landfill this year.
But the Department of Sanitation gave her a fine? It sounds like a thank you note would be more like it.