Restaurant Owner Alexa Caskey gets creative at Moku Roots
Adding Moku Roots to the long list of reasons I love Maui. The Valley Isle’s premier zero waste restaurant is located in Lahaina and serves up hearty portions of nourishing vegan dishes (my bod thanked me for the Slightly Spicy Caesar Salad, Protein Sandwich, and Yucca Falafels) and drinks that I crave on the daily (Thai Iced Tea and Pineapple Kool Aid)— all made with local ingredients! Co-owner Alexa Caskey thinks of every detail through and through, and fiercely shows up in an industry plagued by wastefulness. Here are some of the many ways she aims for zero.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE “ZERO WASTE”?
There's really no way, unless you're completely off the grid, to be 100% zero waste. So I think I would define it as a conscious effort to avoid waste in any feasible capacity.
HOW DO YOU INCORPORATE ZERO WASTE/LOW WASTE PRACTICES INTO YOUR DAILY LIFE AND BUSINESS?
My life right now is 100% Moku Roots, so I would answer that in the capacity of the restaurant. On the consumer end, which is the easier end, we are completely zero waste. We don't give out any single-use containers of any kind. We wrap the handheld menu-- burritos, wraps, and sandwiches-- in ti leaves that are locally grown and tie them with a banana husk. That's the dead part on the outside of a banana tree when the leaves off. When each leaf falls off, it pulls a piece of the trunk too. So they’re made of dried pieces of husks from my farm.
“We wrap the handheld menu...in ti leaves that are locally grown and tie them with a banana husk.”
For things that don't wrap well, we have stainless steel to-go containers that are on deposit. We get them directly from the manufacturer, and we don't let them use any plastic in the packaging; so they come in cardboard and a little piece of paper in between them. The first time they shipped them, they double wrapped them in bubble wrap, and I took them to a gallery who ships a lot of stuff to repurpose it. Then I got these guys to repackage them without any plastic from there on out.
“We have stainless steel to-go containers that are on deposit. We get them directly from the manufacturer, and we don't let them use any plastic in the packaging.”
Having the containers on deposit is really cool because a reusable container sitting in somebody’s closet forever, or having ten of them sitting in somebody's closet without using them, is no better than throwing away single-use containers, including cardboard. Single-use cardboard breaks down pretty quickly In the right environment, but sometimes it doesn't make it to the right environment. If a customer chooses a Moku Roots container, we charge them a $10 deposit, and give them a refund if they bring it back. We encourage people to return them if they’re not going to use them all the time. A lot of people keep them, and that’s cool.
For drinks to-go, we do a couple dollar deposit for mason jars, and give lids with a sticker on it so we know it’s from us. Same model-- we give people their money back when they bring jars back.
We also repurpose all kinds of jars people bring in, like marinara jars and mustard jars; and we use them as drinking glasses. We put our hot sauce in upcycled beer bottles from one of the bars in town (we’re friends with the owner), and they save them for us when we need them. We sell some bottles of sauce, and we use a lot of them in-house; which we rinse out and refill next time we make sauce. We use reusable napkins made of organic cotton. The laundry detergent I buy online is powdered and comes in a cardboard box.
So there's the consumer-facing end (which is kind of easy because that's what we control) versus the receiving end; which is more difficult. As a restaurant, you're buying from big companies that sell to tons of restaurants. They have systems in place and ways that they typically package and ship things; and a lot of times being zero waste is not even on their radar. That’s why we buy things in bulk. For example, we order olive oil in 55 gallon drums, then fill them into smaller, repurposed containers for regular use.
“All of our trash bags are some type of repurposed bag. We’ve never bought trash bags.”
We also use (local) sunflower oil from a company that makes culinary oils and collects used grease from restaurants they sell to. Then they give it to their sister company that innovated biodiesel. The culinary oil company is called Maiden Hawaii Naturals. We get the sunflower oil in 5-gallon buckets, and then we give them back the buckets. Then they either use those to put more oil in, or they give them to restaurants to put their old oil in.
“We...use (local) sunflower oil from a company that makes culinary oils and collects used grease from restaurants they sell to. Then they give it to their sister company that innovated biodiesel.”
When we buy things that are not from the island, like the flours, we try to buy things that come in brown paper bags. Flours usually come in cardboard-like paper, and that's usually the most ideal way of buying things. We use them as trash bags. Basically, all of our trash bags are some type of repurposed bag. We’ve never bought trash bags. Sidenote: The trash we generate is usually composed of gloves and tape for labeling things, which are required by the health department.
The majority of the food we get is straight from farmers and those are often times in repurposed boxes. If they’re nice boxes, we’ll collapse them and give them back to the farmers. If not, we’ll take them to our farm and use them as weed mats. We lay them on the ground and layer mulch on them. They’re really great at keeping weeds out of areas where you don't want them.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER RESTAURANT OWNERS THAT ARE INTERESTED IN AIMING FOR ZERO WASTE?
You really just have to be super conscious and fold that into your equation when deciding what to buy. For most business owners, it’s all about cost, like, “Where can I get this one particular thing the cheapest or the quickest.” At Moku Roots, we ask ourselves, “Where can we get this thing with the least amount of packaging?” It definitely requires thinking outside the box, and it’s difficult with the way society is. People go to the store, they buy this thing in plastic, and they don’t think about it; and the nature of recycling has changed a lot. There are so many issues that can happen along the way. If a plastic container is dirty, it’s not going to recycling-- it’s going to be diverted to landfill in most cases. In Hawaii, they don't recycle any plastic other than bottles with a neck or a handle. So all the food clam shells that you would get at a salad bar or the plastic containers that cherry tomatoes or berries come in-- none of that gets recycled at all. It’s crazy. So what do we do? We simply can’t buy that stuff, which is interesting. You either just have to live without some things, or get really creative about it.
P.S. On top of being a zero waste warrior, Alexa writes mind-blowing posts on the Moku Roots blog that puts a spotlight on the dark sides of the current global food system/crisis.
Follow Moku Roots on Instagram and visit their website at mokuroots.com.
aim for zero is a blog interview series featuring leading voices in the zero waste and low waste game. Read up on entrepreneurs, creatives, artists, and innovators who share honest perspectives on how to #aimforzero in life and business. Follow @aimforzero on Instagram.