LATELY, THE POLITICS OF MEALTIME have gotten complicated enough that even those of us with strong stomachs are struggling to maintain our appetites. Between debates over organic produce, factory farms, and who is responsible for the obesity epidemic, it is hard to sit down to a good meal without eventually facing some confounding ethical dilemmas. Yet when we step out for dinner, or just a quick cup of coffee, many of us set aside our deepest convictions; I’ve seen card-carrying PETA members cheerfully order milk-fed veal in restaurants, a treat they would never indulge in at home. But as a conservationist and would-be foodie, my latest gut check was sparked by stats on packaging waste.
Diners on the run generate more than 1.8 million tons of quick-serve food packaging in the United States each year. The ravages include hamburger wrappers and the insulated cups that carry all those lattes to go. Still, as a guy who brings his own canvas shopping bags to avoid the supermarket dilemma that plagues vegans and omnivores alike—”Paper or plastic?”—I’m surprised how long it took me to realize that restaurant doggie bags and to-go boxes pose a serious problem. Moreover, the fix calls for more than just recyclable foil swans. Most to-go waste finds its way into landfills, and energy hawks worry about the cost of producing and disposing of paper-based containers, such as pizza boxes, while other concerned citizens fret over the carcinogenic fallout from chlorine and polystyrene, a petroleum-derived material commonly encountered in Styrofoam containers.
But change is in the air. This spring Starbucks rolled out coffee cups made from paper that contains 10 percent recycled post-consumer fiber. Though critics would like to see that percentage improved, the new cups will save about 11,000 tons of wood and 47 million gallons of wastewater annually. “It’s a significant step forward,” says Victoria Mills of Environmental Defense, who worked with Starbucks on the initiative. “It also clears a hurdle for any other café or other companies to do the same.” Environmental Defense also helped McDonald’s replace its iconic Styrofoam “clamshell” cases in 1991—the company now wraps its sandwiches in paper—and other fast-food restaurants were quick to follow. Currently, about a third of McDonald’s paper-based packaging is made from recycled paper, and in Europe the chain is working with suppliers on sustainable forestry practices, a policy the company is looking at implementing globally. Such policies can have a profound impact beyond the drive-through. For example, Starbucks had to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to approve food-serving vessels that contain post-consumer paper waste, and the Mississippi River Corp., which supplies pulp for Starbucks’ cups, now makes its wares available to other businesses.
In the same vein, a variety of public and private groups from Berkeley to Boston are working to remove obstacles so more restaurant owners can go green. For instance, the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), the nonprofit brainchild of activist Michael Oshman, consults with restaurants and certifies those that embrace energy conservation, employee education, and recycling efforts. In the long run, Oshman expects responsive restaurants will buy into a “zero-waste” program that emphasizes composting and recycling while finding substitutes for paper products made from virgin pulp or that require chlorine bleaching. When it comes to Styrofoam, Oshman is adamant that restaurants ditch it; the use of polystyrene food packaging is a barrier to GRA certification.” In terms of packaging, it’s a really exciting time for alternatives,” he says, pointing to new plastics engineered from vegetable sources, such as sugarcane and corn fibers, that can be molded into con-tainers, knives and forks, and even fast-food trays. For diners trying to keep track of more than just calories, the GRA has a searchable online database (www.dinegreen.com/restaurant _guide.asp) of more than 100 member establishments in 20 states.
Despite the packaging progress made by some chains, fast food does not necessarily a culinary experience make. Consequently, picky eaters face a deeper quandary when it comes to getting a local bistro or favorite pizzeria to shift priorities. In some areas of the country you can take it upon yourself to suggest participation in efforts such as Northern California’s Bay Area Green Business Program, which spans seven counties and works with the greater business community to improve conservation practices. Likewise, the GRA website has printable suggestion cards that you can leave with the bill to encourage staff to contact the association. But don’t be surprised if you get the brush-off; talking to restaurateurs, I found that between time crunches, staff crises, and the bottom line, environmental discussions rarely rise above the level of background noise.
Accordingly, the best way to beat back your reservations about making reservations is to alter your own consumer behavior. This means making the effort to take a meal sitting instead of on the run, thereby opening the door to using metal silverware, real plates, and glassware—all of which can be washed and reused. It also helps to order only the amount you’re ready to consume, which eliminates the need for a doggie bag. Finally, don’t be a hippie-phobe: Like that guy with the canvas sack ahead of you in the supermarket line, invest in a few Tupperware-type containers and a travel mug (Starbucks will even give you a dime off your beverage if you bring your own cup). Then keep them handy for when hunger calls.