Yesterday Starbucks announced they will be testing alternatives to plastic drinking straws at 54 of their locations in Britain. This is the latest response from food-service operations to increased social media and media attention on the negative effect plastic items like straws and grocery bags have on our environment. UGSRP has been a strong proponent of this movement advocating for change since 2012 with our use of the hashtag #strawssuck. While we are pleased to see such momentum being gained on the plastic straw front we are consistently reminded that the straw is representative of a larger and more concerning issue. Starbucks story
To facilitate convenience for take-away food customers we use an alarming amount of what are known as ‘one-use items’. These can be ketchup packages, paper napkins, take-away bags, coffee cups, you get the idea. In 2013 we decided to investigate one-use items in quick-service and casual restaurants. The most memorable moment of this study proved to be the purchase of a McDonalds Happy Meal. We separated the food items we received from all the plastic and paper that came with the meal. In the end the paper and plastic (including a toy) outweighed the food. Another memorable order was take-out pancakes from a breakfast restaurant. Not only did the pancakes come in a Styrofoam take-out container but the restaurant included 6 packaged butters, 2 packaged syrups, 6 paper napkins, a plastic knife and fork, and a large paper take-out bag.
The results of studies like this become alarming when we look at the fact that Canadians are eating out more often. This year almost 40% of meals will be consumed outside of the home. It is predicted that by 2030 this number will have climbed to 50%. This growth is mostly in convenience take-away purchases as opposed to sit down restaurant where the one-use items are not used as often
It is now time to adjust the norm that allows us to think that the generation of waste associated with such items is acceptable. There are ways to tackle the need for such items and reduce the environmental impact they are having. Education for operators and food-service workers is a logical first step. While the business case (cost saving) is something easy for operators to embrace it is of less importance to the front-line worker who in many cases has a huge impact on the distribution of these items. For employees, training on the environmental impact they have while working maybe the way to go. We need only look at the Starbucks straw example to remember it was an employee who started a petition that got the company to take action.
While education will help we must also look to trying to change customer behavior. While this is more difficult, it can be done. The use of billions of plastic water bottles and coffee cups have been reduced in recent years with the rise in popularity of reusable water bottles and coffee travel mugs. Ideally, we need to think about similar alternatives for food take-out containers. One such product that is starting to be used throughout North America is Go-Box. Go Box website
While there is room for optimism in the fight to minimize one-use items in restaurants we still have a way to go. Whether you are an operator or a consumer you have the power to make a difference through changing your behavior or the policies in your restaurant. The picture below illustrates how easy it can be to make a difference. Claire is a University of Guelph Hospitality and Tourism major who works as a waitress at a local pub. When her customers order a soft drink Claire only brings a straw if people request it. Small steps like the one Claire is taking is what will make the difference. We’d love to hear about and share other stories such as Claire’s. Email your idea or story to us at firstname.lastname@example.org