Restaurants with even a fragment of outdoor space have found ways to serve customers in the fresh air during this era of pandemic dining. For people seeking a meal with a fresh view along with fresh ingredients, an al fresco two-top with a six-foot radius is a godsend. A less-noticed benefit is that in-house dining gives planet Earth a break on what could’ve been another meal delivered in a heap of plastic or fiber containers, billions of which newly crowd into our landfills each week like clamshell cholesterol.
Home deliveries and old-fashioned take-out are soaring. UberEats announced its Q2 revenues doubled to $7 billion. Yes, doubled. And I’m confident these results will set the pace for their competitors as well. All this food must travel in something besides a Prius and, generally, it’s a container that is not eco-friendly.
Most restaurants were caught off-guard by the delivery surge and were forced to stock up in March on whatever materials were available. With the survival of their foremost concern, I can understand why most didn’t spare a thought for the planet’s ecosystem when searching for side-dish containers. But seven months into our ‘new normal,’ it’s past time to consider how our workarounds are impacting the world and acknowledge those impacts will be even more acute once winter shuts down outdoor dining.
Humanity is on course to produce about 400 million tons of plastic a year – a large chunk of that for single-use food service. And while humanity enjoys a lengthy lifespan, single-use plastic’s usefulness is measured in mere minutes ‒ your average shopping sack is used for 12 minutes before heading to a landfill or blowing into the ocean where it will take 500 years to break down into ever-smaller harmful bits.
As it is, humanity dumps 11 million tons of plastic into our oceans each year. That’s equivalent to a trash truck emptying its full contents into the ocean every minute of every day ‒ all year.
As the respected marine biologist Sylvia Earle said, “There’s no ‘away’ to throw to” anymore. We have spread out around the globe and inhabit the spaces that once seemed remote. Plastic waste quickly filling our seas is eaten by sea life we dine on and round-tripping to our dinner plates. On average, we’re eating 5 grams of plastic per week – the contents of a credit card.
If UberEats and others are doubling home deliveries, how do we get a collar on the rising tide of single-use plastic? By using our purchasing power to tell restaurants we expect a higher level of care in transporting our meals. This crisis may be temporary, but the lasting damage of doubling the amount of foodservice plastic we toss away at home will afflict us for twenty generations.
Seeking out restaurants and other retailers who use innovative methods ‒ or just a few extra minutes of care ‒ to swap out plastic and other non-renewables for Earth-friendly materials is one immediate solution. Promoting those restaurants’ good efforts on apps like JYBE that rate their to-go materials’ sustainability is an effective option that rewards good stewardship.
Our reaction to the pandemic was basic human nature ‒ we adapted. Our long-term response will say more about who we are as an interdependent community. Winter will soon send us back inside to our home-baked sourdough and to-go containers. Let’s think for a moment about how we want our food brought to us ‒ in a convoy of forever plastic, or in eco-friendly materials that won’t last much longer than our memories of the meal itself.
Let’s choose wisely on the packaging, but maybe throw caution to the wind on ordering dessert.