Friday, June 17, 2016

Rethinking One-Use Items at Restaurants

I was eating out at a diner with one of my buddies recently, and I was insanely excited when the waitress put my sandwich down. Not because of the obvious reason that I was going to gorge the crap out of said sandwich, but because it didn't have a plastic toothpick in it. Where a colored, plastic toothpick shaped like a pirate sword once penetrated, now stood a nifty, bamboo alternative.

I thought that was really awesome. No plastic one-use item that was going to get thrown out in the regular trash. No wood toothpick that may or may not be from a fresh tree. But a bamboo toothpick made from an invasive species, that can easily be used for many things from bike frames to pillow stuffing.

One-use, non-biodegradable plastic items get used all over the world every day for minor tasks. 50% of the plastic produced is for one-use items. A big contributor to short-term use waste are restaurants and bars. Aside from toothpicks, they also use straws, stirrers, plastic utensils, plastic or Styrofoam takeout containers, paper napkins and more. A lot of this waste is not separated and recycled, so unfortunately, it goes out with the regular trash.

Billions of gallons of oil are used each year to create plastic, with over 60 million yards of landfill space being filled annually due to lack of proper recycling. Since only 5% of plastic created is recycled, it seems like it is time to start rethinking the materials we use to make things. This especially includes one-use items.

Toothpicks are one of those things we don't ask for, don't think to tell them to omit, and just kind of show up sometimes when we order food. Sometimes they are functional to keep the stack from falling over, and sometimes it is mostly decorative. I used to work at a vegan burger spot where we needed toothpicks to keep the chickn' sandwiches together. We had bamboo ones, which were pretty cool and eco-friendly, but it still makes me feel weird to be using something that is mass produced to be used for 10 seconds before it is removed and thrown in the trash.

Thought: If they are going to get used, we should stray away from plastic decorative toothpicks. If you eat at a place you know uses them, you can request them not to be included in your order.

After a meal, there sometimes are leftovers, and restaurants will pack that food to go for you. Containers usually include plastic or styrofoam clamshell containers, or plastic containers in general. Alternatives to plastic containers are the stiff paper clamshell packages, coated boxes and bowls. I try to eat only at places that I know use bio-degradable packaging.

Thought: Restaurants could invest in more cardboard containers and bowls, and not opt to package everything in plastic if not necessary. Also, as a customer who has planned to go out to eat, bringing my OWN container for leftovers is not something I feel ashamed or embarrassed about. In fact, not only should you feel good about not creating a demand for more plastic, but the restaurant will thank you for helping them save their resources.

Coffee shops are a big thing. What a world we live in where you can step into a place and get coffee as simple or as fancy schmancy as you want. Places like Starbucks have customer stations with different milks, sugars, cinnamon and coco-powder so you can customize the ever loving hell out of your latte. To stir it all up, the coffee shops have plastic stirrers that customers will use for 5 seconds before throwing them in the mixed garbage, not to be recycled. Limited oil resources are used to make and ship these plastic stirrers that are used for seconds, and that just doesn't seem smart.

Stirrers are also a popular item at bars. An easy alternative to using plastic to make stirrers are using a longer version of the bamboo toothpicks, or hopefully in the future, hemp stirrers.

Thought: There are currently plenty of things that are biodegradable to use to make stirrers from. I even saw a sandwich shop that had uncooked fettuccine in a cup to use as stirrers. They really thought outside the box!

Another thing automatically given out at restaurants are plastic straws. Sometimes they are given to customers to open themselves, and sometimes they come already in the glass. I have seen people remove the straw from their drink once it arrived at their table. Other times, they didn't use the wrapped one given to them on the table at all. Even if a straw goes unused in its wrapper, it will likely still be thrown away by the customer or busser because its gotten visibly dirty and just isn't really terribly sanitary anymore.

There are alternative materials to use for straws, as I have seen bamboo ones. Straws can also easily be made out of hemp. I actually own a nifty reusable and washable metal straw at home for my smoothies, and bring it with me when I go out to eat.

Thought: Until alternative materials become the norm, plastic straws should not be mandatory to give to eat-in customers. If you are someone who often gets beverages on the go, it may be cool to invest in a reusable tumbler and washable straw to bring with you. Imagine how many plastic cups and straws you will keep out of a landfill in a month.

Taking a coffee or smoothie to go,  might have you holding an item in your hand that cant be recycled and is going to sit in a landfill for a million years. That is not an exaggeration, by the way. Styrofoam is outdated, ridiculously non-recyclable, seriously non-biodegradable, and needs to be 100% BANNED at this point.

To avoid being handed styrofoam, first ask what kind of cups and packaging a place uses before your purchase. If they use styrofoam, ask them if they would consider exclusively using cardboard for their next re-stock order instead.

Thought: Aside from dining exclusively at places that do not use plastic and styrofoam, you can bring your own cup for your favorite place to fill. If you are a regular customer, they should have no problem doing so for you.

Part of making a change is to solve some of the day to day problems for ourselves. We need to rethink what we consider to be inconvenient, and what is actually really practical. City folks are especially turned off by carrying extra items with them, even if it doesn't take up much space. In general people consume and toss without thinking what goes into making those items, or what happens to them after the fact, and that is a bad habit for us to be in.

Some things I carry with me when I go out:
Reusable shopping bag that folds up really small
Refillable water canister
Metal straw
Metal spork
Small handcloth (as a napkin)
I wrap the spork and straw in the napkin. What I would like to add to my list is a silicon, reuseable, and foldable/rollup plate. Everything can get easily wrapped up into a tube shape, and shoved in the corner of my bag. No big whoop.

With a little innovation and desire to step out of unsustainable routines, we can rethink the current way we do things into a more eco-friendly system.

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