Less Waste: When Dining Out

Dining out is sparingly done in our household, for multiple reasons, but even more so, is thoroughly enjoyed. We treat dining out as a privilege, and not a day-to-day occurrence. This awareness makes us more appreciative whenever we step out to eat, not just of the service and of the food itself, but also of our lifestyle and our current situation. We do not want this privilege to be the source of something that dumps on the life that we love, which includes the planet that we live on. Because of this, we have adopted some habits and policies that we try to follow during our experiences.

First and foremost, we avoid take-out and fast food restaurants as much as we can. The benefits of this is multi-fold, with regards to the environment as well as to our health. The initial reasoning behind it, though, was entirely environmental. I try to hide a reflexive cringe whenever food is served to me in a single-use container, which most times occur due to a lack of foresight, on my part. As punishment: my loss of appetite and a barrage of internal reprimands. To avoid, the avoidance of any form of single use containers. Even if a slice of pizza was handed to me in a recyclable or compostable cardboard box, I still can’t help but think to myself, “I could do better”. Consequently, we find ourselves dining out in sit-down restaurants more frequently.

Sometimes, we will go to a sit-down place that serves the food in a re-usable dish, but the utensils are for single time use. Case in point, our beloved ramen or sushi. In such instances, I whip out my Ambatalia utensil holder from inside my Sseko bag, and pull out a pair of chopsticks. It also holds a spoon, fork, and a metal straw– for those situations when a straw facilitates the drinking process – aka malts and shakes at Ruby’s. However, most of the time, we let the waiter know that we are a no-straw table, and thank them when they bring our cups out sans straw. If you’d prefer a reusable bamboo set rather than carrying your own beloved silverware around town, I am a fan of this one, which is held stock at our local farmers market.

Wherever we go, I do carry around a reusable water bottle as well, in case I get thirsty and don’t have a nearby non-plastic alternative to replenishing parched lips. Without any boundaries, I have also been seen whipping out my own Tupperware which I bring from home and carry in my purse when I remember that we are going out to eat. Any leftovers that I have are stored safely in that instead of asking for a to-go box. Embarrassing for the faint of heart, but not so for those with a steely drive to make a difference for the sake of Mother Earth.

The two exceptions we have to sit-down restaurants are our coffee runs and ice cream dates. Coffee is easily purchased on the go with our KeepCup , which we always have on hand in our car. The ice cream dates were initially made easier with ordering a cone to hold our ice cream in. Alas, not all ice cream places have cones. So we do also have this pint-size insulated Miir canister that keeps a pint of ice cream cold for multiple hours. We bring it to our local ice cream shop, which we can bike to in order to further reduce car emissions, re-fill the pint with the most delicious ice cream, and store in the fridge for a couple days indulgence.

How do you implement less waste when dining out?

Environmentally Friendly: KeepCup.

“If I would not use a new baby bottle every time I fed my child, why would I do the same for a coffee cup?”

This is what Australian Abigail Forsyth, owner of Bluebag cafes in Melbourne, thought when she decided to create her product, the KeepCup. Frequenting coffee shops on the regular, I could not agree more. In American culture, getting coffee to go is a very common part of one’s day. The amount of to-go cups I see consumers go through in every coffee shop is astounding.

A woman smiles while sitting holding a glass coffee cup, open plan office through window in background.

“I thought, ‘this is revolting’, there is so much packaging that is just being wasted.”

-Abigail Forsyth

In 2008, KeepCup was first manufactured in Melbourne, Australia, where the coffee industry is booming. Disturbed by the amount of waste that customers produced, the KeepCup was created with both the customer and the barista in mind. Most re-usable cups at the time were a hassle for baristas to use, because the height and width of the cups were usually not compatible with the spouts of espresso machines. There is nothing more discouraging than to go to a coffee shop and asking to use your own cup, then seeing the barista roll their eyes at you. But Forsyth thought, if we could create a cup that baristas would be cool with, then customers leave with the feeling that they did something right. So she created a cup that had the width compatible with coffee machines, in sizes that common drinks came in, namely 4oz, 6oz, 8 oz, 12 oz and 16 oz. A band is placed on every cup which mimics coffee sleeves and prevents customers from burning their hands on their hot beverages. The lid to the cup has an optional cover so that the sipping hole can be completely covered and then tossed into your bag, making it a great portable option.

Originally made from PP, LDPE and silicone, there are now glass options with cork bands, since a lot of Americans did not embrace the plastic material that the KeepCups were made of. Although they were very mindful of the plastic materials they were using to manufacture their cups, a lot of Americans were wary of all plastics, especially those containing hot beverages, after the BPE scare. Listening to her consumers and hoping to increase the use of reusable cups globally, she created the cup that I choose to carry around, to calm people’s concerns about the emission of toxins in plastic products.

Ever since its creation, the KeepCup has gained popularity, but not as much as we would hope, especially in the U.S.  This could partly be explained by the fact that the coffee culture boomed in the U.S. before a barista-friendly re-usable cup was produced, making Americans accustomed to their usual disposable cups. Breaking a habit is much more difficult than creating one. In an interview with Drift magazine, Forsyth proposed a way to make this trend more globally widespread by introducing KeepCups to countries such as China, which are on the brink of starting their coffee boom. If we could get people to embrace it early on and create a habit, it could really make a difference in the long run.

Others say they would prefer to carry the cups of the shops they frequent, with their logos and labels on it, as a way to show others, “This is where I like to get my coffee, but I am too busy to stay there and drink it.” Hearing this, KeepCup has started partnering with coffee businesses to imprint their logo onto their cups. You can usually walk into a coffee shop in Southern California and find a KeepCup on their shelves with their signature logo on the front. But even this isn’t enough. You are more likely to see these cups on the shelves rather than in a customer’s hand. What we find is that most people claim to be ethically conscious and express interest in such a product, but then reach for that disposable cup when they are at the cafe.

I think that the major reason why the KeepCup has not taken off in the United States is due to our particular culture and mindset. Countries such as Australia, Germany, and New Zealand are more environmentally aware, especially with the legal banning of Styrofoam, to-go containers, plastic and harmful chemicals cropping up here and in other parts of the world. It’s safe to say that America lags a little behind other countries when it comes to leaving behind a green footprint. When Americans were asked why they would not carry a disposable cup, the consensus is that they view a disposable cup as an inconvenience. To remember to carry a disposable cup every time they go to get coffee is too much work. The honest truth is that it isn’t any more work than remembering to take your wallet with you or a jacket when it’s cold. Lack of interest in decreasing waste in general is common in the United States. It’s the mentality of, “We can’t stop global warming, so why bother try?”

Here’s the bad news:

  • Half of the plastic used in the world today is for single use disposable items.
  • Every minute, over one million disposable cups are discarded to the landfill.
  • In the United States alone, 58 billion disposable cups are thrown out annually, with the majority ending up in the landfill. That is, 158 disposable cups for every U.S. inhabitant.
  • The 500 billion disposable cups used in the world each year placed end to end could circumnavigate the earth 1,360 times.
  • World paper use has exploded by 400% in the last 40 years. Now nearly 4 billion trees of 35% of the total trees chopped down are used in paper industries on every continent.
  • Very little recycled paper is used to make disposable cups because of contamination concerns. Because most disposable cups are coated with plastic, both composting and recycling of disposable cups is uncommon. Most disposable cups are lined with polyethylene which makes them non-recyclable. Disposable cups that are “compostable” require commercial composting to biodegrade.
  • Urban rubbish has increased ten-fold over the course of the 20th century, from 92 to 1242 pounds of pure product waste per person per year. At this rate, we discard approximately 14.4 times our body weight in waste every year.

But there is also good news.

The KeepCup compared to a disposable paper cup (including coffee) sees a 36-47% reduction in global warming carbon emissions, 64-85% reduction in water use, 91-92% reduction in landfill waste annually. Over one year, the KeepCup, when compared to disposable cups, reduces landfill by at least 99%, greenhouse gas emissions by up to 92%, and reduces water use by up to 90%. You can monitor the amount of disposable cups you save from the landfill with Reuse HQ, a program KeepCup started to better monitor the progress it was making. And the best news of all. Most people open up to the idea of using a KeepCup when they see others using it. I get questions every day from baristas and consumers alike asking where I got my “cool” cup. Some people in line or baristas behind the counter pipe up and answer for me or tell me of their own alternatives. What it does is it starts a conversation. I learn new alternatives to re-usable containers (today I learned about HuskeeCup) and people learn of the benefits of using any re-usable cup. Awareness and inspiration are what we need most. Actions speak louder than words, and I can’t think of a better way to show the world the impact one cup can make than to carry it around with me at all times. I can spit out facts all day, but most people will brush it off and continue with their usual routine. It isn’t until we do what changes we say we want to see that perspectives shift ever so slightly towards the right direction.