Carry out food for lunch
I stepped out quickly to buy food during my lunch hour and inadvertently came home with a Styrofoam container. I know better than to do that, but how else am I supposed to order my food to go? I’ll admit, in the middle of my lunchtime h-anger, I wasn’t thinking about the environment. But as I was sitting back at my desk, staring at the container and wondering how I would dispose of it after I finished eating, I started thinking about how I got into this situation.
I was eating Brazilian Black Bean soup that contained too much liquid to be stored in an alternative paper-based container. I would happily buy a reusable ceramic bowl from the soup restaurant, if they could fill it for me like some coffee shops fill reusable mugs. But they didn’t have any for sale. I didn’t have time to eat at the restaurant, so to-go was my only option. I could have made lunch at home, but I didn’t get to it the night before. Still no solution.
A supplier problem
A few months ago, I ate at a restaurant for lunch. On my way back while walking along the river, I saw trash accumulating by the river’s edge. Much of it was plastic bottles, soda cups, food wrappers, and Styrofoam containers. Much like the one from which I had just eaten.
This got me thinking about consumerism and where companies believe the purchase ends. Companies often creating marketing campaigns around the purchasing funnel, which moves through the stages of awareness, opinion, consideration, preference, and purchase. Or the buying cycle, which moves through awareness, research, comparison, purchase, and retention. The end goal of both is for the consumer to purchase or re-purchase. These models end with the consumer. There is no consideration about the material life cycle or caring about what happens to the product after the consumer purchases it.
What about a new consumer model that incorporates the material life cycle by including a return or reuse step? Such as awareness, research, comparison, purchase, return, and retention.
The problem of non-biodegradable storage materials is larger than the environment. It affects company business and branding in adverse ways. Companies believe the customer experience begins when they capture your awareness and ends when you make a purchase. But with non-biodegradable storage materials, this experience extends much earlier and later than the moment of purchase. It may also extend to people besides the customer who made the purchase.
For example, when I’m walking home and a food wrapper blows past my feet. Or when I come across a restaurant soda cup laying on the sidewalk, with gaudy brand colors contrasting starkly with the neutral earth tones around it. I want to say, “Yo, Company, your trash is starting me in the face! Not cool.”
Seeing the brand tumbling around on the ground like a tumbleweed across a desert plain shows me the company’s disregard for the environment. And it turns me, the consumer, away from purchasing from them in the first place. Brand awareness can be both good and bad. And in this case, I saw branding literally become garbage.
Sure, it’s not the company’s direct fault that this particular soda cup was rolling around outside, unwanted. A consumer probably littered. But on the other hand, the company is responsible, because they control earlier stages in the supply chain. They could choose to serve food in biodegradable or re-usable storage containers, thereby eliminating the variable of consumer littering in the first place.
A matter of convenience
The recycling diagram that we often see is actually in order of importance: to reduce, to reuse, and only then, to recycle. Following this guide, the primary step would be to reduce disposable food containers, whether they are biodegradable or not.
When I was out to eat with friends this past weekend, we considered going to the city’s best indoor food hall, also known as the Public Market. It’s a major attraction in our city, has excellent long-time vendors, and offers options for everyone. The bustling location also makes it a great place to meet up.
There’s only one problem with this food hall: almost all food is carry out and served in single-use containers. One of my friends commented about the inability to avoid disposable containers at the food hall and asked if we could eat at an actual restaurant instead. “Just because the waste with the packaging is pretty annoying.” This statement echoed my own frustrations with my soup at lunch a couple weeks prior.
Which got me thinking about the purpose of dining in versus dining out. For me, there are two main purposes for buying ready-made food. First, when my days are busy, I simply don’t have time to cook at home (or rather, I don’t prioritize cooking at home). Second, I eat out as a social activity where the conversation is more important than the food. It’s a slow pace.
Grabbing food for a quick bite is convenient, and it has its place. In a bind (which happens less often than modern life would lead us to believe), I think it’s fine. But while this is convenient for me, it’s not convenient for the environment. I have no delusions about that pizza box being recyclable, because despite the recycling icon, packaging that contains remnants of food cannot be recycled. And in the crushing depths of a landfill with no sunlight or oxygen, nor will that box ever biodegrade.
“We need to let go of everything being so convenient, because it’s wasteful,” my friend said. And it is. She told a story of one of her friends who hosted a large party without paper plates. They served the party with cheap dinner plates from Goodwill and set out bins labeled “dirty dishes go here.” The guests were dumbfounded. Yes, it’s more work to clean up, but the trade off isn’t just about us.
Carry out solution
For carry out, if reusable containers aren’t an option per food code and supposedly biodegradable containers will never actually biodegrade without exposure to natural elements, what is the best solution?
For me, the answer lies with re-framing why I eat out. If I don’t have time to dine in and enjoy a meal in the company of others, I probably shouldn’t be purchasing food from a restaurant. Most sit-down restaurants serve food on reusable dinnerware and then wash it themselves. There’s no need to change that system – I just need to use it. In this sense, I want restaurant food to be more about the social experience and less about my lazy kitchen. It’s about choosing a sit-down experience.
I will probably need to plan more and prepare lunch for work the night before. In my current lifestyle, this answer isn’t convenient- but maybe it shouldn’t be. I’m sure with a few adjustments to how I cook and meal prep, I can change my habits so that it feels like I never made an adjustment at all.