First off, I hate the stupid phrase “save the earth.” I know that it’s both an unattainable fiction and laden with humanity’s deluded hubris.
That said, it’s pithy and people know what the heck is meant — that we inarguably live in a time where our only world, our ONLY life support system, is imperiled by pollution, toxic manufacturing and waste, and excessive consumption, and that WE THE PEOPLE caused said imperilment, and that it’s up to us to get on the stick and start doing something real about it.
In layman’s terms, we need to stop dicking around on practical solutions to our self-inflicted ecocide, which is also humanity’s own suicide — or the willful murder of our kids and grandkids if that puts a finer point on it for you.
To that end, it means we have to change our daily habits en masse, in ways that make a quick, discernible difference.
And it’s my central philosophical stance on this issue that we can have just as beautiful, meaningful, satisfying, uniquely varied, and even wildly aesthetically and culturally pleasing lives even if we were to voluntarily give up tons of “stuff” that we currently regard as necessary but which turns out to be both unnecessary and measurably harmful.
I’d go further — I’d say we can have better and MORE meaningful lives if we do so!
So my target du jour on where we can start is restaurants.
Service with a Smile, But Not all That Other Junk
Who in America doesn’t like going out to eat?
We all love it. We get waited on, served up grub without having to lift a finger, someone else does the dishes, there’s tons of variety, people are employed — what’s not to like?
But restaurants are suffering right now because, given rising rents, especially in cities, fixed operational costs, labor costs, supplies, and waste, their margins are thin. It’s tough to make a good go of it.
The demands of an ever-changing public tastes makes staying competitive even more pressing. One recent article talked about how all but a certain kind of restaurant — counter service — may be doomed because of these pressures.
To add to their profit woes (and our shared eco-woes), restaurants contribute to that needless waste stream I mentioned above, with things like disposable plastic straws, To Go containers/utensils, paper napkins, ice, food, etc.
But people have been “going out to eat” as long as there have been villages and cities and a kitchen with a hanging shingle along the roadside. We want our restaurants and to eat our cake there, too!
Restaurants provide an awesome service, mind-blowing variety, jobs, cultural character — FOOD for heaven’s sake — and a social hub.
So how can we make the interface between restaurants and customers one of greater understanding on the eco-front, so that if restaurants were to make industry-wide changes, WE THE PEOPLE could do our part in accepting the changes gracefully, supportively, and even joyfully?
My Cafe: The Cat’s Cradle
Actually I do know, but it’s such a Gordian Knot of interrelated steps, complex multiplying factors, and social and political obstacles, that it’s kind of ridiculous to just say, “If we only did X, Y, Z everything would obviously be better.”
Even if said statement is both true AND attainable — at least theoretically.
But, I’m going to propose changes for the restaurant industry anyway and hope that out there in the frantic cacophony of the Interwebs that my thoughts won’t get entirely lost, and maybe even that the seed will be planted in some small way.
It’s important to note here that there are resources for restaurants to, for lack of a better phrase (and in spite of the pablum soundof it), “go greener.”
From the National Restaurant Association’s page on Industry Impact there’s a link to a sub-website on their Conserve Program, providing both inspiration in the form of green-forward industry leaders, and practical tips for lessening waste (mostly food waste, but other waste, too).
So kudos to them for that.
What I don’t see is an aggressive campaign calling for the immediate removal as a group of some of the most costly, wasteful, and environmentally-damaging aspects of the restaurant business, and doing so in a concerted industry-led movement, so that change can be made truly urgent and equal to the war-footing required to face climate change and the giant monsters of plastic waste in our oceans, secondary waterways, landfills, and soil.
So I congratulate the industry for having a sustainability and conservation wing. But I’m calling on the industry to up its game. And I call on consumers to bear a role in this, too, by being accepting, going with the flow, and getting on board in specific ways.
No More Straws
There’s no reason on earth that we need to continue using one-off disposable paper or plastic straws. Americans currently use 500 million plastic straws PER DAY — nearly 2 per person DAILY! That’s a hundred and eighty-two billion, 500 million plastic straws per year.
We should be ashamed of ourselves!
But let’s go blame-free on our negligence and for being hoodwinked into believing that this somehow represented a more hygienic way to manage human health.
If, as a society, you’re tossing that many straws into your landfills and waterways after 15 minutes of use (to say nothing of the toxic manufacturing, paper coverings, packaging, and transport required for this nonsense product) then you’re clearly not paying attention to what human health really means and needs.
Leaders failing to make clear what is truly needed — and what’s not — on the “disposability culture” at the heart of straw use (and other disposable products) are either clueless, lazy, negligent, or crooked for not having tackled this long ago.
If restaurants stopped giving away disposable straws they’d not only save themselves TONS of cash in expenses, but they’d also be doing our precious earth, our Beautiful America, and our human health a world of good.
Customers could get on board by accepting this (they largely would, even if there was some initial grousing).
Almost no one in the world save a few differently-abled folks need straws. It should be incumbent upon those folks — and anyone else who simply MUST use a straw — to provide their own straws. (Get yours here*, though honestly, you’re a big kid now, do you really need a straw?)
No able-bodied human child needs a straw, either. The proof of this is tens of thousands of years of human history before the first everyday disposable straws were introduced in the 20th century. This was no great societal innovation. Prior to this children drank…out of cups…without the world falling apart, even if some juice got spilled.
Eliminate straws from restaurant service and the world, customers, and the industry will survive. Individual restaurants will be better due to shaving some expenses off thin margins.
Moreover, the world, people, and the industry will be better for growing up, facing facts, taking action, and helping to build Earth Culture 2.0.
As for the straw manufacturers of the world and how all they want to do is, “put their kids through college…” Well, the banality of evil (or perhaps more precisely in this case, the banality of negligence), is no excuse. If your product doesn’t work for a broadly healthy world, it’s time to get a new job and peddle a new product. Maybe get in on that reusable straw market.
CUSTOMER TIP: Ask for your drinks with “No straw, please.” This will help send the message to restaurants and the industry.
No More Perfunctory Water, No More Ice Water
If a customer wants water to drink, they should order it and get it, no stigma. Water is awesome to drink and it should remain free — after all, restaurants have to have water to operate.
But anyone who’s spent five minutes working in the industry knows that a good portion of the water served goes untouched.
This isn’t 1950 out in the high Arizona desert at the only HoJos for miles and that six ounce glass of tinkling ice water served up with a friendly smile says, “HOSPITALITY!” after your unwieldy sedan pulls in to the motor lodge for lunch.
Rather, to Americans, going out to eat is far more a way of life than a treat. We don’t actually even know what the term “treat” means anymore but that’s a different essay.
Water is a precious resource, one that expert analysts on the future tell us is soon to be scarce, expensive, and the source of conflict. It’s imperiled by everything from pipelines to toxic dumping to methamphetamines, birth control pills, and opioids being tossed down the toilet.
We need to conserve water in a healthful, conscious manner, to say nothing of treating it better overall.
To that end, pouring and tossing billions of glasses of water each year is not just absurd, it’s unconscionable. An advanced, intelligent, leading society like ours should never be so flagrant and ridiculous as to make simply sitting one’s butt in a booth water-worthy.
Ordering water is fine. Giving it unconsciously to every diner has jumped the shark.
Worse still is ice water (and worse than that, ice water served with a perfunctory straw).
Not only is ice bad for human digestion, which depends on “digestive fires,” but creating and sustaining troves of ice in individual restaurants is a gratuitous fossil-fuel driven energy suck in a world that can ill afford what is essentially a luxury being transmuted into a perceived daily “necessity.”
Geeze, have you ever seen how ice was made and preserved in the past? It was hauled out of rivers, packed in sawdust, and buried under the earth in ice houses to be used throughout the year. And that was just for rich folks, mostly.
To continually make EXCESSIVE ice now, just because it’s easy and seems cheap, at millions of restaurants across the US, every day, week after week, year after year — it’s the very definition of clueless and insane.
Clearly customers want chilled martinis, margaritas on the rocks, a nice cold coke. Maybe some will even request “ice water.” Drinks NEEDING to be chilled should be served chilled.
But OVER-powering an ice machine to unthinkingly give everyone who walks through the door an ice water, most of which will sit untouched until it’s poured down the drain is unnecessary, costly, and dangerous to our world. Eliminating would save massive amounts of both energy and water and again, help with those thin margins.
Truly classy (though not necessarily “fancy”) restaurants now serve unchilled (or chilled but not iced) water in straw-free glasses. Some leading restaurants don’t even sell bottled water (still or sparkling) because the bottling of water to transport it over long distances to be used once and then tossed is environmentally hostile — environmentally unfriendly — hence unfriendly to ourselves and each other.
Still others make sparkling water on site.
Because water is life, give up the water service already. Straight up.
CUSTOMER TIP: If you want water, ask for it, “With no ice, no straw, please,” but don’t expect it just for dining in. This will help send the message to restaurants and the industry.
Reimagining To-Go Food
To ask restaurants to completely give up To Go service would be absurd. All of the trash and toxic materials and manufacturing and shipping of To Go containers is wasteful in the extreme, but To Go food is a bread and butter part of many restaurants’ businesses, some of which are ONLY “To-Go” places.
People like it, too. It’s been going on as long as there have been food shacks and restaurants.
BUT, restaurants could take a few steps to lessen their impact, increase their profits, and help build awareness. And customers could get on board by compiling their own mess kits, just like every person in society essentially had to in the past in some form or another.
- Offer a 5-10% discount on orders when the customer brings their own clean tiffin or other easy-to-use To Go container, like this, this, or this.
- Educate customers on buying their own mess kits to encourage the growth of a new culture — Earth 2.0 — where we don’t expect things to be disposable.
- While in transition, use only the best To Go containers — paper and biodegradable containers instead of styrofoam and plastics. Bamboo or other forms of cutlery. No straws. Unbleached napkins.
- Start programs for regulars wherein they return your clean, reusable containers (after paying a deposit on them) as part of a rewards systems that gives them perks for being your “Green Hero Customer.” Reward them with desserts, a free side or drinks, a coupon for in-house discounts.
- Increase customer engagement and participation by offering a place in online, phone, and counter ordering for: “Have my own Container.” Or on deliveries: “Please send reusable container/deposit on file.” And/or “Napkins not needed.”
- Stop serving children disposable cups/lids/straws/cutlery for in house service. It sets a bad early example that’s difficult to undo over time.
Some of these steps will help lessen the costs restaurants pay for supplies, increasing their margins and helping ensure their viability in a volatile market. Bigger profits are a good thing. If you can get that and help preserve our planet for now and the future, well, that’s heroic!
And we need more heroes. Bigly.
CUSTOMER TIP: Get a dedicated personal To Go container for your doggie bags, and to use in To Go ordering. Bring them when you go out. You can also just compile one from lidded containers that you already own. Here’s a nice cutlery set you can get to keep in your bag. See links above for To Go containers.
There’s no reason on God’s Green Earth that anyone, except those in some kind of emergency situation, needs a paper napkin. If paper napkins and tissues had never been invented and hawked to us as some kind of deluded saving grace, just as people have done since the dawn of textiles, we’d all still be carrying hankies and our own cloth napkins and laundering them.
And the world wouldn’t have collapsed from dread disease.
I do carry a cloth napkin every where I go and I love it! I love its beautiful Irish linen loveliness, its multi-use durability, the feel of it in my hands, its actual absorbency — awesome. Plus in my own small way I’m NOT contributing to the ridiculous arrogance of using a paper napkin (the arrogance of expecting our world to be disposable).
And don’t get me started on the nonsense fiction advanced by those who want to put a reusable cloth napkin up against a disposable napkin and make some false equivalency about their mutual sins.
Almost nothing that is manufactured once can be equated to something that has to be uniquely manufactured every single time. YES, a cloth napkin must be washed. Depending on its color, maybe even bleached.
But every single paper napkin must be uniquely manufactured for single-use. That means new trees downed, factories belching through their workday as fossil fuels burn to power them, gallons upon gallons for pulping and building up and flattening and all the other manufacturing needs of paper, and then there’s new packaging (often plastic) to wrap it in, and then transport and delivery.
All to be used for 15-30 minutes and then get trashed.
Oh, and by the way, since paper napkins suck, you often need a great many to equal one cloth napkin. And then it leaves a crass, embarrassing, aesthetically repugnant pile on your plate when you’re done.
Eliminating paper napkins would save restaurants a heckuva lot of money, save local landfills, save water and waterways, save trees that we desperately need in a time of global warming, save ourselves, and help us culturally to get out of the disposable world paradigm.
Meantime, local linen and laundering services would increase local employment, helping boost jobs that were decimated when centralized paper producers disrupted their industries for no good reason. Yes, this will cost restaurants money, but not likely more than throwaway products.
It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s sure a helpful step in the right direction.
CUSTOMER TIP: Carry your own linen napkin with you. You can get ’em cheap at thrift stores and antique shops if you prefer. Ask the restaurants you frequent to switch to cloth.
What are we, The Rock? Freaking Tyron Smith? Sumo wrestlers? Amazon women? Gigantes?
What’s with the food portions that would feed a small army? Oversized portions are what lead to food waste — food which invariably ends up in some bizarre vanilla-colored, pink-tinged, vomit-like stew in a gray plastic bin at the end of the night in restaurant after restaurant across the country.
Getting to take food home with you for a second or third meal is great (provided you bring your own To Go container) if you’re actually going to eat it. Cheap refrigeration and quick microwaving makes it possible for us to do so, though at-home waste likely rivals restaurant waste.
Restaurants address food waste all the time, and they want to avoid it.
Cutting portions in half would help. Or as some sort of compromise, offering half, full, and super-sized servings on the menu with their attendant price tags. If you want huge, pay huge. Otherwise, far more petite servings will do.
And we, the fat American, know it.
Each cut in portion size means all kinds of follow-ons, like fewer cow farts and transport fuel use, less food waste, less bloated landfills, and skinnier Americans. So stick a fork in it, already!
CUSTOMER TIP: Try ordering from the appetizer menu. Or just a soup and salad. Request that the restaurant begin to offer scaled portion sizes.
Late to the Party
The only way to begin dialing down our insane level of consumption and waste is to start enacting these obvious choices across myriad industries. None of these practices are particularly difficult, painful, or an obstacle to the good life. They’re just different. We were doing all of this not 70 years ago. What went wrong?
None of these choices will bring down Western society, even if jobs and economic scales need to readjust. With luck, they’ll elevate it. And that sounds pretty tasty to me!
— Lindsay Curren, Average American
NOTE: if you buy through any commercial links on this page, I get a couple of pennies. I think my hard writing work is worth that.)