I have a confession to make. Last Thursday, this was my lunch: chicken and vegetables, and a side of brown rice, emerging from a case of plastic and paper like Metroyshka dolls. I hate waste. Can’t you tell?
This summer I interned with the NYC Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling in the Financial District. Every day I diligently packed my lunch into reusable containers, toted it in my reusable lunch bag, and enjoyed it on a sunny bench where I could absorb the sights and sounds of Lower Manhattan. But last Thursday was different.
When rain put a damper on the department’s planned picnic lunch, 12:00 rolled around and I was stuck — hungry and lunch-less. Not a big deal, right? In this financial capital cum tourist mecca there are literally hundreds of cafes, restaurants and food trucks serving a veritable smorgasbord to high-powered Wall Streeters and glassy-eyed tourists alike. But it all, unfortunately, comes with too much to-go food packaging.
The To-Go Food Packaging Conundrum
Setting aside the economic and nutritional implications of regularly indulging in these local menus — aptly inflated for the financial and roving sets — have you ever seen what a take-away lunch looks like?
A slice of pizza? Sure, take the whole box.
Or the sandwich: a mummified meal, triple-wrapped in paper and foil, flanked by a single-serve bag of chips, towering stack of napkins, and a fountain drink in a wax-lined, non-recyclable cup — all entombed in plastic that doubles as a carrier and an easy, one-shot refuse holder.
Or maybe the crisp green salad, tossed in its sadly well-intentioned compostable container that is nevertheless destined for the landfill — where an organics collection bin is not to be found (or the diner doesn’t realize the difference.) Or perhaps the worst of the batch, the hot lunch in Styrofoam. Need I say more?
A true ode to American consumption and convenience. Welcome to New York City.
On that particular day, I placed my lunch order at the Chinese restaurant behind my building and the next thing I knew I was walking out with a meal smothered in plastic and paper packaging waste. Yes, I brought my reusable bag with me but I had no choice in the hectic lunch-hour rush but to accept the pre-packaged fare. In the restaurant’s defense, I am not their typical customer. Most diners I suspect would have welcomed the excessive service.
So What Can We Do About All This To-Go Food Packaging Waste?
On the surface, the problem is straightforward: excessive to-go food packaging waste.
From a systems perspective, we have our stakeholders:
First, hungry diners deciding what to purchase and eat — and what to do with the remains at the end of the meal; Next, food vendors preparing and selling food — and using to-go food packaging to deliver their product conveniently and at its best — at the correct temperature, un-smooshed and ready to savor. And, we can’t forget the waste management personnel — they’re the ones who have to collect and manage the remnants of this prandial transaction — and make sure the city is clean and sanitary for eaters and non-eaters alike.
The Food Experience
Diners crave a certain food experience and vendors want to meet these expectations — to earn customer loyalty and develop their brand. Quality, taste, quantity, cultural experience, variety — or predictability.
The Service Experience
Diners want to choose what they eat and where they eat it. Most don’t have the time (or patience) to wait. Vendors want to meet — and exceed — both real and anticipated customer needs. Convenience, speed, efficiency, customer loyalty, differentiation.
The Disposal Experience
At the end of the meal diners choose to save their remaining food or packaging or dispose of it — as trash, compost or recycling. Ease, convenience, access, cleanliness/hygiene.
The Experience of the City/Environment
Everyone wants to enjoy a safe, clean and culturally diverse city. Clean, accessible, hygienic, safe.
The Economic Experience
No one wants to over-pay. Vendors deserve to make a living.
Ideas for Changing the State of To-Go Food Packaging Waste
Within this system what can we do solve the problem but still make sure that everyone gets what he/she want and enjoys the on-the-go lunchtime dining experience?
While I personally am a bring-your-own supporter, what about the days when you just don’t have the time? Sad to say, there is a hint of deprivation: the lonely brown-bagger eating his lunch at his desk while his coworkers embark on the culinary journey of the city. How far can we expect this take us? Can a waste-watcher never eat out?
Recyclable Lunch Packaging
I’ll be the first to call out that recyclable to-go food packaging is still waste—but it’s great news that NYC now collects all plastics (sans Styrofoam), in addition to cardboard and paper. In addition to the issue of access to recycling containers, there’s also the reality that commercial restaurants do not receive DSNY collection — and they may not recycle at all. Plus there’s the reality that food residue that can contaminate material and also attract rats, bugs and odors — especially since recyclables are typically not collected in bags and are picked up less frequently than garbage.
A Styrofoam Ban?
Of course compostable packaging would be great if accompanied by adequate compost/organics collection bins. And if these materials, especially compostable plastics, aren’t composted they may do more harm than good. What can we do to improve the viability of this solution?
Diners pay a fee to “borrow” reusable ware and bring it back when they’re done. Do you think New Yorkers (and others, too, of course) would buy into this?
What Do You Think of Takeout Food Packaging?
How do you navigate the world of take-away dining — or assuage your take-away guilt? Is it possible for a waste hater to eat lunch on the run?