July 29, 2017

The Downside of Take-out

Are we settled in our new home, now that we've been here for a month? If you call having furniture in its (possible) places and four pictures hung out of about twenty, then yes, we are basically settled. We have so far spent pretty much every weekend of this endlessly blue-sky summer up at the resort where my husband works, and the dust is settling in our town condo much more effectively than we are. Every week we organize a few more little things but we know we have all the time in the world now, so we will take it.

Going away for weekends takes quite a bit of organization. I have Wednesdays off work so I spend that day cleaning, planning meals for the weekend and preparing some food in advance for Thursday and Friday. By the time Friday evening comes I am fairly ready to go, and also in need of a good night's sleep. The cafe where I cook is extremely busy in summer, and we are working flat out all day in a hot kitchen. I opted to stay in town for this weekend since my Wednesday this week was a write-off - oh, I had a great day visiting with a friend, but I got nothing on my to-do list accomplished aside from having my car serviced and some chicken cooked. I woke up this morning after a ten hour sleep feeling rested and missing the cool pine-scented air of the mountains, but looking forward to getting some things done here at the condo. My daughter went off to a cherished friend's house for the day. The friend in question is home from her job at a summer camp and has an in-ground pool. Enough said. So! Here I sit at my laptop in our lovely, bright little den, the silence spurring me on to fill it with words.

They say to write what keeps you up at night. Nothing has kept me up at night this week. I have fallen gratefully into bed each evening and slept hard for at least seven hours. That's not to say I haven't had anything on my mind, because I have. In summer our cafe serves hundreds, if not thousands - honestly I lose track - of take-out orders. Each of those take-out orders is placed in a biodegradable box made from cornstarch-based paper, the paper napkins and plastic cutlery placed in small paper bags. Soup is served in paper take-out cups with paper lids. My employers try to make everything as environmentally friendly as they can. We compost and recycle and serve healthy food with as many locally farmed ingredients as possible. For a restaurant, I think we do fairly well, apart from the plastic cutlery. Perhaps one day soon we will find an alternative to plastic for cutlery as well. I know one has been invented, but it is probably quite expensive and not readily available - I know the take-out boxes made from corn are more expensive than the alternatives. We only offer plastic carry bags if the customer asks for them, or if the volume of take-out requires them. The sheer volume of take-out coffee cups, plastic lids, plastic cutlery, plastic straws, and plastic cold drink cups (recyclable though they are, I most often see them thrown in the garbage) which leave our cafe, and the innumerable cafes and restaurants around the globe, on a weekly basis is somewhat staggering, and I cannot stop thinking about that fact.

A few weeks ago my daughter and a friend brought home Mexican take-out. The food (yummy!) and drink (a delicious Mexican guava soda in glass bottles) for the three of us arrived in three large styrofoam boxes and five plastic bags. I was aghast although I said nothing in front of my daughter's friend, who had kindly driven to the restaurant to get the food. My mind immediately leaped to the fact that every order from the restaurant in question would create plastic garbage, and a lot of it. I thought of the take-out Pho I'd ordered in the winter and how it came in large styrofoam containers and plastic bags. At least the wooden chopsticks were reusable. Over the next weeks I began to think about the volume of garbage created by restaurant take-out and wondered what to do about it. We rarely get take-out as a family, and when we do it is usually pizza in a cardboard box - not so bad. What about all the people who get take-out a couple of times per week? What do they do if they want the food without the garbage? Do they bring their own containers? Their own bags to carry it in? Is that even allowed?

I have a sense people are more indifferent about garbage than they were a few years ago. I am sure these things go in cycles. We can only care about so much at one time. Moving twice in the last eight months was quite enough to focus on for me, and I went months without feeling overly guilty about throwing away the occasional plastic bag. Lately, I am trying harder to save them to reuse for produce purchases. (I wash and reuse Ziploc bags, so a box of them can last me two years.) Restaurants cannot reuse plastic bags, just as hospitals cannot re-use certain things for sanitary reasons. Some garbage is unavoidable for commercial and public enterprises. Personal garbage is not. I have a choice each and every day to use less throw-away products. The cafe I work in has made the choice to use mainly sustainable materials, so I know they exist. I don't see many good excuses out there for continuing to use styrofoam take-out containers. If restaurants switch to biodegradable ones, they can simply add the cost to their take-out prices. If the food is good, people will pay a little extra for it. I know that to be true.

My mother used to bring home the plastic cutlery and cups from events she organized, wash and reuse them for our family picnics and parties. I found myself doing just that with plastics used for my kids' birthday parties and lemonade stands. When I was little and asked my mother why she didn't buy plastic wrap she told me that when it was burned in the landfill the chemicals went up into the air and killed the birds. I still can't use it without considering the impact on my bird friends. I was instilled with a checkpoint for environmental impact. Yes, there have been times when I have ignored the checkpoint when other factors took precedent, but the point is I have one. I wish with all my heart everyone did. These days it seems people who care about producing less waste are looked upon as slightly 'precious' by others. How on earth did that happen? This isn't about being trendy or hipster, it's about doing the right thing for the planet we all share and will hand on to the next generations. We all know plastic takes hundreds of years to break down in a landfill. Thankfully, more and more municipalities are seeing the light and mandating improved household waste practices; they are the ones who must deal directly with the landfills and understand the overall impact on the community. Even grocery stores are either eliminating plastic carry bags or charging for them. Perhaps one day soon restaurants will also have to become more accountable for the garbage they produce. Convenience is costly. Or it should be.