Talk about a green-living disaster.
Just days after writing a story about my gradual switch to green living, I hit a rough patch. I had relatives in town from two branches of the family tree. Work had piled up. And, there’s my five-month-old baby, always a handy excuse. Pulled in these three directions, I didn’t have time to worry about the Earth, and she paid dearly.
The culprit: take-out meals.
The Styrofoam containers—I learned from my guilt-driven research they’re known as clamshells—were piled up in garbage bag after garbage bag. The unused chopsticks. The little packets of soy sauce, ketchup, and other foods not likely to be consumed. The plastic bags.
And the paper napkins. It’s like the people at the restaurant said, “I’ve heard the Ghezzis are major slobs, so throw in some extras.”
I am astounded at how much damage a few take-out dinners can do. They’re hard on the wallet and generally a nightmare on the waistline. And, for the first time, I saw take-out as an environmental horror.
If take-out meals are so bad, why do we gobble them down with such frequency, fueling the growth of the upscale prepared food sector in an otherwise stagnant food industry?
Convenience, of course. I’ve been crazy busy. When my family members came to town, the baby was the main attraction, and it made more sense to eat at home than try to take her to restaurants. Since I had not gone grocery shopping, cooking was out of the question.
So we dug into the drawer of menus and started dialing. Pizza the first night. Chinese the next. Then, Thai. A couple of weeks earlier, when my mother-in-law visited, we ordered in Mexican.
Surprisingly, the most envirofriendly of the bunch: pizza. The cardboard box is recyclable, and the only thing that lands in the trash is the wax paper liner. We use regular plates, not paper, and cloth napkins. To make the dinner more healthy, we added a Greek salad to our order. Good for the body, bad for the planet. The salad came in a clamshell, accompanied by two plastic containers of dressing, two plastic packages of saltines, and a plastic-wrapped package of plastic cutlery. Arrrgggghhh!!!
And guess what? No one ate the salad. I found it in the fridge, wilted, a few days later, and tossed the whole thing. (I really need to start composting!)
American eating habits are so out of whack. We want to be thin and healthy, but we value convenience more. So we devour the extra fat and calories in over-packaged prepared foods rather than make a meal. We surrender to disgusting fast food, because we are desperate for convenience at a low price. But making the food from scratch would be even cheaper, without compromising our health.
Several trends point to an increase in wasteful packaging as consumers place a higher premium on convenience. For example, I notice trucks delivering pre-packaged meals to the upscale homes in my neighborhood. And businesses have sprung up with names like “Super Suppers,” where women go to cook a month’s worth of meals for the freezer.
As the trend toward buying pre-packaged meals grows, it seems everyone is remodeling her kitchen, adding sleek appliances and stylish countertops. Why bother if you’re not going to cook?
I suspect many women, like me, want to cook more. We know it’s healthier. We know it’s cheaper. And with increasing environmental awareness, it’s obvious that cooking at home creates far less garbage, especially if you compost.
But despite good intentions, the telephone and the take-out menus are right there, calling our name after a long day at work.
There is a tiny bit of good news. The restaurant industry, under pressure from some local governments and patrons to stop using clamshells as doggie bags, is looking to environmentally sensitive products. Companies are stepping up to sell restaurants what they need, producing biodegradable packaging made of corn, wheat, and other materials. Experts predict the market for Earth-friendly food packaging will grow about 20 percent a year, according to Food USA, an industry news source.
The rise in the cost of petroleum products is also driving the trend.
And as consumers, we can cut back on take-out waste by telling our favorite restaurants not to include extras like fortune cookies if we’re not going to eat them. We can also bring our own tote bags when we pick up the food, so we won’t end up with even more plastic bags. (Best to let the restaurant know when you place your order, so they don’t have your food bagged when you pick it up.)
But for the overall health of your body and your bank account, it’s clearly better to get dinner on the table the old-fashioned way, using the stove.
On the last night of my father-in-law’s visit, our take-out options were limited, because it was Easter Sunday and restaurants were closed. So, he cooked spaghetti with clam sauce. Mercifully, he even cleaned up the kitchen when he was finished. The meal generated no trash. None! A few cans went into the recycling bin, and a few food scraps went down the garbage disposal.
Upon witnessing this contrast, I vowed to do better. I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the pantry staples that make home cooking feasible. I bought biodegradable garbage bags for seven bucks, twice the cost of regular bags, but guilt won out over cheapness.
I bought a few packaged, prepared foods, because my work schedule will not let up until the end of the month. But I also bought the ingredients to make a huge batch of marinara. I see no Chinese or Thai food in our immediate future—only lots of whole-wheat pasta topped with homemade sauce.
Talk about a green-living disaster.