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Straws are the tip of the iceberg

Straws are the tip of the iceberg.

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Last fall my wife Liz and I were driving back to Woodstock from a weekend of fabulous dining in Montreal. It’s a long but pleasant ride, about 350 miles straight shot. We decided to skip dinner and started on the road right after rush hour traffic. We drove south over the border and onto I-87 through the beautiful Adirondacks. By the time we reached Schroon lake, we were getting hungry. While we drove we listened to a Nero Wolfe mystery on Audible. The mid century America portrayed in the book was inspiring. We both had the urge for a good old fashioned meal. I was having black and white movie visions of a nice pot roast dinner and real cup of coffee in a little green striped cup with saucer.

We decided to jump off the northway to catch a bite. We didn’t want to venture far from the thruway as we were hoping to get home at a reasonable hour. Our first exit was a failure; we were disappointed as we drove around and encountered a wasteland of fast food and gas station food. We got back on 87 and proceeded further south. Second exit was the same, as were all of the exits for the next 100 miles. When we finally reached Lake George we encountered an actual Mom and Pop joint where we sat in chairs and ate our food with from real plates, with real silverware and real glassware.

That search for a real meal was a frustrating and depressing experience, but quite enlightening. Of the thousands of travelers daily on that route, all who were thirsty or hungry had no choice but to consume from disposable serviceware. I wondered how many people like us found that dismaying, or whether that’s just what is accepted now.

On our summer vacation we were having lunch at a casual sandwich and salad joint in Dewey Beach, Delaware. Beach party towns like Dewey are not exactly bastions of progressive tree huggers, so when I spied the quote--”Skip the straw, Save the Fish”  graffitied on the big daily specials blackboard among the tap beer specials and skeletal fish drawing and I was pleasantly curious.  Nice gesture I thought, and I commented to the sandy looking college aged waitress how impressed was to see a green effort taking place in Dewey beach. She smiled and said “Yea man, we are all in on banning straws!”

We proceeded to order; a cobb chicken wrap for me, while Liz ordered a roast beef sandwich, no bread. Our lunches came out on actual china plates, thankfully, but---but---the sauces for both mine and Liz’s sandwiches were in plastic souffle cups with plastic lids. My wrap has foil lined paper wrapped around it. The breadless roast beef sandwich was in a plastic soup cup. Liz’s side salad was also in a smaller black plastic take out cup as was the dressing. The chips that came with mine were in an individual portion bag. The salt and pepper shakers, the McCormick grinder style were disposable and not refillable. When I asked for an extra napkin to get the frozen avocado puree off my chin I was bombarded with a wad. I counted them and there were 12.

When we were done eating, there were a few chips, a smattering of stuff that fell out of my sandwich and a dull slice of tomato left on our plates. “Do you want boxes?” we were asked by the waitress. “No thanks, I'll pass”, I replied.

I received my copy of the check and offered my card, and soon the waitress returned with THREE copies of the credit card slip, one for the house, one for me and the third for--I dunno, nosebleeds. For a $28 lunch we created our own bag of non-recyclable, or not recycled, garbage. Indeed there were NO STRAWS as promised, but our table looked the a parade had passed over it. There were at least 5 plastic containers with lids, no fewer than 14 paper napkins, 4 receipts, a chip bag, plastic disposable salt and pepper grinders, three receipts and an offer of styrofoam to go boxes and a plastic shopping bag. All of this for a lunch that probably came to the kitchen packaged in plastic as well.

Throughout my 35 years of being in the food business, I have observed keenly that this is how a current culture has been conditioned to eat out. I know I'm a wee bit old but I remember when sandwiches were wrapped in deli paper or even better, recycled newspaper. Not so long ago workers ate breakfast and lunch either from their lunch box and thermos, or at places like greasy spoons and luncheonettes where food was eaten off china with real silverware and coffee cups. The cream came in a pitcher and the sugar in a bowl. And to-go boxes, called doggie bags were only for the bone for the dog. Aside from special occasion lunch places and of course weekend brunch, breakfast and lunch in full service restaurants is a dying concept.

Our approach to food service and eating out has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. Diners are ready to eat out of bags, because they grew up that way, obsessed with convenience and squeamishness. Operators are willing to spend their money on containers and paper goods to save on labor.

Restaurants are not the only culprit in our packaging waste machine. As a culture we have become so wary of germs that we feel this desperate need to pack everything we buy in its own bag. I watched a woman in the supermarket produce section recently put one head of garlic,  two potatoes, a jalapeno, two apples, a cucumber and a bunch of parsley EACH in their own big plastic bags, destined to be discarded the moment she arrived home. What was she afraid of?

And lastly, let's talk about “cook” at home meal kits. In my opinion they are the most UNGREEN development in our manner of eating ever. Everything is packed in a double box, delivered (by fossil fuel) and each box comes with numerous ice packs. All ingredients are indiviually packed in plastic; 4 meals, 4 plastic vessels with one clove of garlic each, for instance. Meal kits are big business generating 5 billion in sales and almost everything is packed in single use plastic.

Let’s use Blue Apron as an example: they are not the only culprit here, just one of the the biggest. The average Blue Apron three meal kit contains two 4 lb freezer bags filled with toxic chill-foam and just under 4 ounces of non recyclable plastic in each kit, and that doesn’t include the double packing box. They sell over 786,000 kits per week. In the course of one week, that is 186,675 pounds of plastic generated. Over a year? That is 9.7 million pounds. Chew on that.

The straw revolution is cool, but there is SO much more you can do. Here are a few simple things that you can do to break the convenience habit:

  • Get a nice insulated coffee mug and bring it when you order coffee to refill it.
  • Get a good quality cold drink vessel and fill your drink run in it.
  • Eat breakfast at home (yea that means waking up earlier)...or eat at the mom and pop breakfast place, and sit down and eat like a human.
  • Get a cool lunch box, and either pack a lunch or get your to go stuff packed into your own reusable container.
  • Cook for yourself buy buying fresh foods and cut down on packaged foods.
  • Eat at your local independent restaurant that lives by your own philosophy. They are out there and love your support. Feel free to email or ask in person about things like recycling and what kind of disposables they use. You will get a response.
  • And most of all, sit down and enjoy your eating and drinking. It will make you feel alot better about yourself and the world.

Pass on the doggie bag/boxes. Are you really going out eat that food?. Or is it going to end up rotting in your fridge. Only you know the answer. But it is certainly a huge waste of energy and adds to our global pollution.

Thanks for the straw banning initiative, now let’s get to work on the rest of the mess we are making.

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