This year, I have met with city and state governments across the world about the important topic of shifting our societies towards the use of more reusable items and less single-use (disposable) items. The decades-old adage of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” predates the Green Restaurant Association’s formation in 1990, but its simple wisdom can serve as a clarion call for how the world should use its natural resources. For the past three decades, billions of dollars have been spent on developing sophisticated recycling systems across the globe. In the 1980’s, curbside recycling’s proliferation was but a dream that is now realized in most cities. Young generations have been taught from childhood what and where to recycle their various single-use items. To be clear, recycling is much better than landfilling in the amount of energy, water, and raw materials it saves to make a new item out of an old one… rather than a new item out of virgin resources. But…
“Recycle” is the last of the three words in “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Recycling became a better solution than landfilling to the proliferation of single-use items. So, what is better than recycling? The first two words: “Reduce and Reuse”. The amount of energy, water, and resources to make and dispose of a product that will only be used for a few minutes is not sustainable. Even with all of the recycling infrastructure, only 9% of plastic is recycled. Recycling is the last solution to our consumption needs, not the first.
The first is to “Reduce”. In our homes and businesses, we need to ask the question of “do I need to purchase this product?” If we do, then we should research and buy the product that uses the least amount of energy, water, and other resources to produce. And, that product should be able to be used many times, which brings us to the second term and topic of this article: “Reuse”. The product purchased should be reusable. In the case of the restaurant industry, there was a time not so long ago, where almost every restaurant served its in-house customers with reusable items. Now, many still do; but, many serve in-house customers with single-use disposables. This needs to change.
We’ll break up the problem into two categories:
First, we’ll discuss items used in a restaurant. That is the easiest of these two problems to solve. In a short period of time, we can resume to an era when customers can expect to go into a restaurant and eat on a reusable dish; drink from a reusable cup; and dine with reusable forks. The following are steps in the Green Restaurant Association program that restaurants can integrate into their restaurant operations:
You can offer discounts for customers bringing in their own mugs and take-out bags. This is just the start. You can take the Pledge for the Planet to integrate more reusable items into your restaurant today by going to http://www.dinegreen.com/pledge. If we are going to address the issues of climate change, the Pacific Garbage patch, marine wildlife dying with pounds of plastic in their body, and coastal pollution, we have to make a dramatic shift towards reusables and away from disposables.
Now, let us address items used outside of the restaurant, such as To-Go or Delivery Packaging. Whereas in-house reusables can change right away with the decision of responsible restaurant owners across the world, the topic of reducing single-use items for take-out and delivery is more complex, because it is not solely up to the restaurant to make that change. It will require more systemic solutions.
How do we solve the issue of single-use items for take-out and delivery? Customers will still want convenience, and government, restaurants, and customers will all want to ensure that the solutions are clean and safe. We need to mimic the convenience of single-use items while integrate the environmental integrity of reusable items. The solutions will need to happen at the neighborhood and city level to begin, with the support of city governments. They will need to include a system of:
Financial deposits and reimbursements for reusable containers, cups, and utensils
Convenient Drop-Off for used reusables
Pickup and centralized cleaning of the reusables
Redistribution of the reusables to the restaurants
The system will need to include technology to track, city support to encourage enough drop-off sites, and incentives for the first batch of restaurants to go in this direction. There are already small models of this being done in Portland and on some college campuses. The Green Restaurant Association looks forward helping the industry take large strides in this direction in the coming decade.