by Meghann Cranford
As a kid, I looked forward to Wednesday mornings at 9am when that monstrous truck with pincers for hands would circle the block picking up the big plastic bins that lined every driveway. With a fascination for the garbage truck, it is no surprise that years later I would be initiating recycling programs, shopping with reusable bags, lugging around a reusable water bottle and collecting food scraps in a pickle jar. My New Year’s resolution even involved reducing waste all because of an itching disturbance for the common to-go containers restaurants carry. These ridiculous things fill up the fridge, make everything smell like last night’s dinner and cannot be microwaved without threatening to give you every disease known to man. On top of that, these Styrofoam containers never biodegrade once they enter a landfill. Why don’t we use containers that fit nicely in a fridge, are easy to transport and don’t pollute our landscapes?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans generate 4.8 pounds of municipal solid waste a day. That equates to roughly 1600 pounds of waste per year or about the size of four cars for each person. (3) Where does all of this stuff end up? In places like THIS
The majority of the things we throw away contain valuable resources that could be used for greater purposes. In fact, consumers only see about 1.5% of the resources that go into making the products they hold in their hands. The other 98.5% of all resources used in the extraction, manufacturing, transportation and distribution processes are thrown out without even being seen by even the most conscious consumer. (1)
My first experience with using my own container while ordering food was at Panda Express. I asked them to use my container and I was even willing to pay more if the serving sizes were disproportionate. (Really, there should be incentives for customers that bring their own containers because it reduces the costs businesses spend on packaging, but that is a whole other topic.) The server was pretty supportive until his boss ran up and stressed that he absolutely could not serve me in my own container. I was annoyed. So much so, that I wanted to leave without getting food at all. The person I was with was very embarrassed and I realized that this was a social/cultural issue as well as a health and safety one. For the time being I swallowed my pride and continued in line to enjoy dinner with a friend.
Society does not want to see, hear or smell items once they discard them. They put them in a bin, bag them up and leave them on the street without thinking twice about what happens next. The problem is that even though the physical materials aren’t in the hands of the consumer, the health and environmental consequences that surround them only increases. 42% of greenhouse gasses in the United States in 2009 came from the procuring, processing, transportation, and disposing of food and goods. Landfills alone contribute to 18% of the methane emission in the US. (2) Did I mention that methane has a 25 times greater impact on climate change than CO2? These are just two gasses we are talking about. What about the other chemicals that flood our air streams and the leachate that pollutes our drinking water? These toxic substances not only destroy the environment, but contribute to health problems in people of all ages. When did throwing anything “away” become second nature?
Since the Panda Express instance, I have tried a couple of other approaches. The first being avoiding fast food and taking my own containers for leftovers at sit down restaurants. I was surprised at how supportive waiters and waitresses have been to this approach. Some have them have even told me that they should start bringing their own containers for the end of their shifts. The people I eat with have also been very supportive or maybe my friends are just used to my waste reduction obsession at this point, it is hard to say… Either way, convincing people to take their own leftover containers could be one of the most effective approaches to reducing post-consumer restaurant waste.
Additionally, I have been working on a project to create a Zero Waste Events Guideline at the University of Wyoming. Part of this project includes piloting these guidelines at a large conference on campus. In one of the meetings preparing for this event, I was asked about how we were going to set up our waste receptacles and if we would like them to be “dressed up.” Now I know we have been using a landfill monster image (like the one below) in our marketing campaign, but I thought putting our containers in mini landfill monster costumes was taking it a little too far. Quickly, I found out she was asking if we would like the waste bins to look “pretty” and not like a recycling or trash. Why do we try to cover up what is really going on? Let us expose it for what it really is, waste! Waste of valuable resources, time and money. Discarded materials may be out of site, but the environmental and health effects are never out of mind.
There could be a lot of criticism toward my personal efforts. How is reducing to-go containers going to make any sort of impact when the major sources of waste are paper, food and yard trimmings? Isn’t my push for individual efforts to reduce waste just supporting industry initiatives to convince individuals it is their responsibility to clean up the mess we are in? My goal is not to put the blame on anybody, but instead to spark conversation and encourage forward thinking about the products we use, where they come from and where they go . By taking to-go containers I am thinking ahead to ways I can reduce my waste, but also creating a visual cue to spark conversations with family, friends and employees about the importance of these resources we so easily discard. We can chose the future of our planet, I chose to reuse and refuse to “feed the fill”(Post-Landfill Action Network). (4)