As I promised yesterday, I am here to report the results of the old-school investigative reporting I did today instead of eating lunch. I checked out all the lunch-worthy places near my office (by lunch-worthy I mean: places in which I can actually get food for a relatively reasonable price and eat it within the time-frame of a way-too-short lunch break). The results were unexpected. Here’s what I found:
By Chloe. (that is not a typo. They have a period in their name) is a hip-looking vegan place that recently opened around the corner from where I work. Everything they serve their food on is disposable, but the server I talked to said she thought that it was all “maybe” recyclable or compostable. So I double-checked on their website, which says it more emphatically: “All of our to-go packaging at by CHLOE. is recyclable and/or compostable.” Although I didn’t see any difference between their to-go and their not-to-go packaging, so I’m not sure exactly what they are referring to. Of course, by now you and I also know that what “recyclable” and “compostable” mean is open to question. And even if it is, it doesn’t mean it will be, if you get what I’m saying.
Verdict: more information needed.
Saloniki is a local “fast-casual” Greek restaurant opened by an award-winning local chef. Having eaten here before, I know the food is delicious. But what about the stuff it’s served on? The guy behind the counter said they use disposable cardboard for the for-here orders. Sides come in plastic, the sandwiches are wrapped in paper. The utensils and cups are plastic. When I checked their website, it said nothing about packaging, and there wasn’t even a way to contact anyone to ask questions.
Verdict: I wonder if they’ll let me bring my own plate…
Sweetgreen is a chain restaurant that serves salads and grain bowls. The server I talked to said that everything is compostable and biodegradable, and that they collect the used stuff to compost. Hoping to find out more about this, I checked their website, but they didn’t mention anything at all about their packaging, including how and where they compost it.
Verdict: definitely need more information.
The server at Chipotle (do I have to explain this one? Burritos!) was the most definitive and knowledgeable of any of the people I talked to today. “Cardboard and aluminum foil,” he said. “This was a choice by the company, to be sustainable.” Kudos to Chipotle! However, when I checked their website for more information, I found a lot concerning their opinions about sustainable food sourcing, but nothing about their attitudes on packaging. Verdict:( yes, you guessed it) good start, but need more information. I mean, their cups and utensils are plastic…
Finally, I went over to Panera, a chain that – full disclosure – I don’t love because all of their yummy sandwiches turned out to be about a thousand calories each, and also because they opened a place two doors down from my favorite local diner, which I was afraid they were going to run out of business (happily, that didn’t happen).
Panera was the place that really surprised me. First of all, they are the only place that actually uses real plates, glasses, and silverware if you eat in. And they have a lot of information online about their packaging decisions, stating over and over that they design their packaging “with a lens towards sustainability,” and backing that up with lots of details.
They also seem pretty honest about things. They point out, for example, that even though they have looked into compostable packaging, there aren’t that many commercial composting facilities in the U.S., so that choice is not really feasible “on a grand scale” (which I guess every chain restaurant aspires to) . They’re concentrating on recyclable containers instead (here you can take a moment to nod wisely, and mentally list all the caveats).
Verdict: I am happily surprised by their attitude, and I am revising my negative opinion of them. But, of course, I’d like more information…
And because I’ve whined several times in this post about needing more information, and just so you know I’m being thorough (but not too thorough, because I’m not writing a dissertation here), I shot off an email to each of these places giving them another chance to explain their packaging choices and procedures. I’ll let you know if I hear anything from them.
Honestly, though, the take-home (unfortunately, it wasn’t food) of this whole experience was something I wasn’t even thinking about when I started out:
All of these places that happen to be within a walkable radius of my workplace are relatively new companies that position themselves as caring about local food, about creating a small environmental footprint, and about healthy eating. Most of them give off a hip “sustainability” vibe. And yet all of them, except Panera, are based completely on use-and-toss packaging. It seems that the more eco-friendly they claim to be, the more waste they are generating.
This goes way beyond single-use plastic. This looks like a social movement.
Which leads me to ask: what the hell are we thinking?
Or maybe we’re not.