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More Thoughts on Packaging

Today I met a friend in Starbucks.  I know, I know, Starbucks isn’t exactly local and sustainable, but it is a convenient meeting place with a decent atmosphere in which to chat and catch up.  I arrived a few minutes early and decided to order a bagel and a cup of tea.  I asked for the bagel on a plate and the tea in a mug since I was going to eat both in the shop.  She promptly cut open a bagel, placed it on a piece of paper (huh?) and put it in the toaster oven.

There was some fuss for a few minutes, at which point the barista informed me that they didn’t have any mugs (they were all out “on the floor” – I did a quick count and noted exactly one mug) and the only plate was being washed in the dishwasher.  I told her I’d run out to my car and grab my own mug, and that I could wait for the plate.

I got my mug and she poured my tea, then started helping other people.  After a few minutes, I went back and inquired about my bagel.  The plate, it seems, was still not ready.  Then I noticed the bagel nicely wrapped and waiting for me in a paper bag.  Um… didn’t I say “for here”?  It seems that bagels are to be wrapped even when served on a plate.  I told the barista, as politely as I could, that my point had been to avoid any kind of packaging, and since the bagel was already in the bag that she would clearly throw out even if I gave it back, the plate was no longer needed.  I took my bagel, complete with bag, and sat down with my tea.

I went to open the tea and the pressure from the steam sent hot water flying all over the table.  What a mess!  Several paper napkins later, everything was clean and I was finally enjoying my tea and bagel.

In a few minutes I was done the bagel.  What remained was the bag, several soggy napkins, and the paper it was toasted on.  Is all this waste necessary?  I know that paper is biodegradable and much of what they use contains recycled material, but it still requires cutting down trees to make, not to mention the tremendous amount of water and energy it takes to turn trees into paper (check out this website to learn more about how much water different products require, for example it takes 140 litres of water to produce 1 cup of coffee!)

I know I wrote about this just a couple of days ago, but I don’t understand the need for so much packaging, even if it is of the more environmentally friendly type (i.e. not plastic).  It is still tremendously wasteful.  Have you ever noticed just how much paper is left behind after a 10 minute feed at Tim Hortons or some other fast food restaurant?  I had specifically decided to buy something to snack on at Starbucks because I thought I’d be able to avoid packaging.  But even if I had brought my own plate and tea towel (which I won’t leave home with out again, if I can help it) and had been quick enough to nix the bag before she put it around my toast, there is still the matter of putting the bagel on some paper before cooking it.  I assume this is parchment paper, which is infused with teflon and therefore not even remotely biodegradable.  I guess next time I will have to eat my bagel cold.

The amount of paper waste the we produce is staggering.  I am currently trying to burn up all the waste paper in my house, and I literally have boxes of it.  It will take me weeks of sitting by the fire in the evening, feeding small handfuls at a time (I can’t exactly make a raging bonfire in the dining room), to get through it all.  I am disgusting, both with myself and with our blatant wastefulness.  Sure it’s better than the styrofoam that we used to use for fast food, but how about no packaging at all?

To make matters worse, being out and about all day, I also purchased my dinner at a little Indian restaurant.  I specifically said I didn’t need it wrapped, but wrapped it came.  And as the words “I don’t need a bag” were coming out of my mouth, the girl smiled and put the dripping roti into a bag.  While at the cash, I watched someone get their take-out in a styrofoam container, and before leaving, asking for a plastic bag to put it in.

We’re doomed.

I really don’t know what it’s going to take to turn things around.  I have noted over the last few weeks that quite a few really great environmentally focused initiatives have gone belly up due to the current economic downturn.  Clearly sustainable living and eating is seen as a luxury, not a necessity, and the first thing to go when times get tough.  It’s so discouraging, especially considering how much momentum was developing in the direction of change.  Now we’re climbing back under our rock.

On a positive note, I have observed a couple of people now carrying mason jars for their drinks, and others have remarked, in a positive fashion, on my collection of glass jars (in which I bring my lunch to work.)  Maybe the trend will grow.  I cannot change the world, but I can be the change I wish to see, and perhaps demonstrate to others alternative actions they can also take.  Sometimes it just takes observing a simple solution – such as carrying a tea towel or mason jar –  to alter a habit.  I never considered bringing lunch in a mason jar before meeting someone else who did this religiously.  Watching him pull a sandwhich out of a jar closed the door on zip-lock bags and tupperware for me. I was thrilled.

Today I failed myself  (and mother earth) by not having my plate and napkin, and not anticipating the actions of others.  I am getting better and quicker with these however.  Now when I go to the butcher I specify “no bags” before I even state my order, and in the future I guess will have to do the same at Starbucks.


4 Responses

  1. What bugs me about Tim Hortons is that they have all that paper and they don’t recycle any of it…they only have recycling bins available for glass and plastic.

    Couldn’t you shred your paper and take it to the recycle depot? That would make it go faster…unless you are burning it for warmth.

    • Hi Vicky – The one thing they do recycle is unsold donuts! That gets turned into cheap animal feed for the agro-industrial complex. We really need to reassess our priorities!

      As for the paper, we heat our house with a woodstove, so I figured the most environmentally friendly option is to use all this paper for heat! Plus, at least with respect to my old letters, there’s something rather cathartic about burning stuff you no longer need. Particularly when doing so keeps you warm and keeps your gas bills low!

  2. I had to laugh! I read your post on packaging while still fuming over having to argue with the “sacker” at a local store. I told her three times “No plastic”. She argued with me that she had to at least wrap my (already overerly wrapped”) roast in plastic. I told her AGAIN “No, just put it in my bag.”. She rolled her eyes and muttered…… AND when I got home and upacked my graceries… SHE HAD WRAPPED A CARTON OF EGGS IN A PLASTIC BAG!!

    • Good grief – doesn’t that drive you nuts? Or when you say “no bag” just as they are bagging your time, so they throw the bag in the garbage. You have to be quick! Drives me batty…

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