Waste Not, Take-Out Not

Have you considered the environmental impact of meals?

By Kevin RR Williams

ECOLOGY Recycling goes far beyond getting your nickel deposit back from soda pop bottles. When cooking at home, we have control over most of the recyclable and environmental variables. We can choose the ingredients, utensils, and cleaning solutions. When dining out, we have less control, essentially voting with our pocketbooks. We can also voice a complaint if a restaurant hands us more waste products than food for our take-out meal.

Non-Disposable Containers

Thirty two million tons of plastic waste were generated in 2011. Notoriously, the take-out containers used at restaurants are plastic and styrofoam. We might think of plastics as recyclable, but this is only the case if someone properly separates the various recyclables. Otherwise they wind in a landfill even though we placed them in the blue recycle container.

Do you get a bit uncomfortable after visiting the restroom and discovering no soap in the dispenser? That's essentially the feeling I have when a restaurant packs a bag full of non-consumable items with my meal. Years ago, after purchasing a burger, salad and a drink at McDonald's, I found myself stuffing an entire tray full of trash into the waste bin. There was a plastic bowl for the salad with a plastic lid, a cardboard box for the burger and the paper that wrapped it. The fries came in a small cardboard box. The beverage cup had a lid and straw. There were napkins, condiments, salad dressing and disposable utensils. Conversely, the waste at Hamburger Habit was mostly paper and fit compactly within the French fry container. Had I made either meal at home, my utensils would have been washed with even less waste.

It would be nice to begin a Pinterest board with photos of the amount of waste materials restaurants require customers to dispose of after a meal. Photos can be similar to the first on in this post. Let me know in the comment section below if you're interested in being added as a pinner.

Environmentally safe take-out containers are available at a higher price than the ones that wind up in the landfills. Everything we throw away has to go somewhere. The sanitation trucks don't drive off into some foreign galaxy. The trash occupies real estate. Over time, at various rates, materials like steel, wood, paper, glass, and natural fabrics eventually break down into the soil. Synthetic materials last infinitely.

Minimize Toxic Food Waste

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates that 35 million tons, or 70 billion pounds, of food are thrown away every year. According to U.S. Food Waste Disposal Data, food waste percentage by sector is as follows:

  • Residential—44%
  • Full-service restaurants—20%
  • Quick-service restaurants—13%
  • Grocery stores—11%
  • Institutional—10%
  • Industrial—2%

Most of us think of discarded food as biodegradable. However, excess food rotting in standard dumpsters generates odors while attracting rodents and insects. Landfills in the United States account for 20 percent of the methane, contributing to global warming. A two-step approach can be used to minimize food waste: (1) Decrease the amount of wasted food, and (2) compost wasted food.

Minimize waste by ordering what you will actually eat. Buffets are notorious for bringing out the glutton in all of us. Make good use of refrigerated leftovers within a reasonable time (2-3 days if properly refrigerated). Consider bringing reusable take-out containers with you when dining out. Starbucks deducts a nickel when customers bring their own coffee mugs for refills.

How to Make Vegetable Stock

You would be surprised how much food waste can be eliminated by making your own vegetable or meat broths. During meal preparation there are always some remnants of food. It might be carrot tops, or ends of zucchini where it changes to stem. Often we trim down to the last one-quarter to half inch of an onion. Just slice off the dirty rooted part. Add all these seemingly unusable pieces to a freezer bag. When it's full, remove from the freezer, add fresh herbs, boil for an hour, and strain to make your own broth. Freeze the broth in an ice cube tray. Then place the cubes in a freezer bag to add to various dishes when required.

References
  1. Tackling food waste through packaging innovation. greenerpackage.com
  2. Reducing Food Waste for Businesses. epa.gov
  3. Plastics Common Wastes and Materials. epa.gov
  4. No Waste Food Challenge. turquoiselemons.com
  5. Photography by author.