A Personal Tale of Polystyrene, Part II

Charlotte Crabtree, an avid reader of the Wednesday Post who may or may not be my closest blood relation, forwarded my blog from a few weeks back “A Personal Tale of Polystyrene” to management at Midtown Global Market.

In reply, Market Director Jeff Alexander described many efforts made and aspirations held by MGM to become a more environmentally sustainable operation.   “But also part of the market’s mission is to help our small business vendors be financially successful and because of the price difference between Styrofoam and compostables, it is difficult for us to impose costs that would negatively impact a vendor’s bottom line,” he explained.

My mind overrunneth with responses!

I know, profit margins are tight in the food industry.  But ultimately, a restaurant’s success or failure rests in the hands of its customers.  So, are customers’ priorities being reflected in this decision to trash the environment in order to knock a few nickels off the price of their entree?

To dig into this question, we first need to know how much other options actually cost.  Compostable products are not the only alternative.  With polystyrene we are starting at the bottom, environmentally speaking;  so there is a whole continuum of products at different price points which would arguably be an improvement.  The lowest price I found online for a 3 compartment entree size polystyrene to go box is 11 cents per unit, so I’ll begin with that number in mind.

Think outside the to go box

The best scenario one can hope for in take out food packaging is no box whatsoever.  Could the meal possibly be switched from a box to a wrapper?  Reducing the material volume of the packaging tends to keep the price down naturally.  Chefs have a chance to get creative here by coming up with outrageously good options that can be lightly packaged.

pre-cut foil 6 cents per sheet, from centralrestaurant.com

Grease resistant deli wrap is as little as 2 cents per sheet @ webstaurantstore.com

Large grease resistant sandwich bags 4 cents; dry waxed compostable sandwich bags 6 cents @mrtakeoutbags.com

So far we’ve only saved money compared to styrofoam.  But I know what you’re thinking, Midtown Global Market.  “Allison, not everything can be wrapped.  What about side dishes?  Our customers love them!”

I’m glad you brought that up, MGM.  But first, did you ask me if this was “for here” or “to go”?  Why load food into polystyrene clamshells indiscriminately, when you could possibly serve “dine in” food more minimally than “to go?” Recycled paper boats start at 3 cents each.  Throw in a 4 oz white paper souffle cup (2 cents) for a side dish and you are still saving money compared to polystyrene.

100% recycled paper boat trays start at 3 cents each @ mrtakeoutbags.com

4oz white paper souffle cups will hold a side dish. 2 cents each at mrtakeoutbags.com

“But open top holders don’t work for carry out,” you protest.  Don’t give up.  There are still ways to minimize packaging without breaking the bank.  As a customer, what I don’t like to see is a sandwich put into a big styrofoam container all because of a little dollop of coleslaw in one section on the side.  What about wrapping the sandwich in paper or foil and putting the side dish in the most minimal cup possible?

4 oz biodegradable souffle cup + lid, 5 cents @ mygreensupply.com

“But what about messy, saucy entrees.  And big salads?”  I follow you, MGM.  Firstly, welcome me to bring my own container if I am so inclined. Secondly, give me the option of buying the cadillac of to go boxes (or should I say Prius?) for an extra charge:

100% recycled paper Bio Plus Terra boxes in mulitple sizes, around 40 cents each @mygreensupply.com

Bio Plus 100% recycled paper boxes are endorsed by the Green Restaurant Association, and boast 35%  post consumer content.  The “Terra” version has a compostable lining.  Of course they are expensive (around 40 cents a piece), they are made in the U.S. possibly by adults earning a living wage in reasonably safe conditions!  Is that so wrong?

If you must have 3 compartments, consider bagasse (sugar cane) boxes.  They are made from a sugar refining byproduct which would otherwise be incinerated; are compostable, and cost around 40 cents each. On the downside, they are imported all the way from China.

Bagasse (sugar cane) Compostable Box from China with love–.42 cents @ mygreensupply.com

The power of presentation!

Edible tortilla bowls make the package a part of the meal.  Corn husk wrapped tamales are just plain fun.  Thai fish and rice in a Banana leaf boat?  Suddenly you’re in the realm of haute to-go cuisine!  You score extra points for presentation which can translate into dollars and cents.

On the flip side, I would argue that polystyrene bums your customers out, even if it’s subconscious.  It makes your product seem cheap, and your business seem thoughtless.  In 1987 McDonald’s was the largest single user of polystyrene.  After giving serious thought to starting up a nationwide polystyrene recycling program, they decided to ditch their polystyrene clamshells instead.  They determined it didn’t make sense to make an enormous investment in associating themselves with a material held in such low esteem by consumers.   In 1986, polystyrene production had been ranked the 5th largest generator of toxic waste in any single chemical production process. However for McDonald’s it was as much a matter of smart marketing and public relations as it was a matter of doing the right thing.  So don’t take it from me, take it from one of the largest fast food chains on earth!

So how much is it worth to us?

Price is not the only factor determining what people buy. When I consider the question “how much more am I willing to pay for a to go box?” the answer depends on how much I like the food that comes in it.  For the right meal, I’d pay a dollar for the box, no problem.  But if I don’t like the packaging I tend to eliminate the food altogether.  I can always eat someplace else.  This is America!

So back to my initial question.  Are customers’ priorities being reflected in this decision by some restaurants to trash the environment in order to knock a few nickels off the price of an entree?  Are restaurants forced to make these decisions with dire consequences by a consumer lust for low prices at any cost?  Or do customers buy the way they do because they don’t feel they have any power in the matter, any choice?  I don’t know.  Each person must answer this question for him/herself.

Consumers do in fact wield power in the how they choose to spend their money.  Even the giant corporations that all but control our government are nothing if no one buys from them.  No business or person is perfect, but a lot of good can come from steering your dollars in a worthy direction.

Wrapping it up…

There are many factors to consider regarding which materials are more sustainable.  Polystyrene, some argue, is a petroleum refining byproduct, so it is good to use it for something. Yet it is terribly polluting.  Bioplastics made from plants are renewable and compostable, but take more energy to manufacture.  And even the Prius of to go boxes mentioned above–the price itself seems to indicate it’s not terribly efficient to put the thing together.  The point I come back to time and again is that anything disposable tends to be not very good for the environment.  Eliminating or decreasing the volume of packaging where you can is the better option.

There are many different ways people can assimilate this reality into their restaurant patronage.  I find it awkward to make special demands at restaurants regarding packaging, so I favor restaurants that automatically package their foods minimally.  However remaining loyal to a restaurant while expressing your interest in alternative packaging is potentially more constructive than jumping ship.  A loyal customer has a strong influence, and if your voice contributes to a restaurant changing their packaging altogether then it’s not just about your meal any longer but about every meal ordered by every customer who walks through the door.

Props to Midtown Global Market

It is not my intention to pick on Midtown Global Market, whose packaging is in fact very similar to any other food court in Minneapolis.  I take a special interest in MGM because of their excellent selection of international foods and their mission to celebrate cultural diversity, nurture small business,  and enhance and community wellness.  “Midtown Global Market” never asked me questions as I suggest above.

Below I am sharing the complete message Midtown Global Market Director Jeff Alexander sent to Charlotte, so you can read about all the great things they are already doing.  When you stop in for your next falafel at Holyland Deli, ask them to wrap it in aluminum foil.  And tell them Allison sent you.

Hi Charlotte,

You bring up a subject that has been much discussed here within the market.  In fact over the past five years, we have applied to several funding sources to help the vendors with the financial hurdle of going from Styrofoam to compostable disposables but have been unable to secure anything to date.

While we do have a “Pig Barrel” program that many of our vendors participate in with food scraps,  our goal has been to make the market completely compostable (or as close as possible).  We have dreams of having compostable sites where we can turn food wastes into dirt for a garden.  We’ve even thought of selling bags of Market Earth at our spring Earth Day event. This year we did have our first small container box garden with a rain barrel that grew flowers and herbs – which some of our vendors used.  Next year we hope to have more vegetables.  So we are getting there.

But also part of the market’s mission is to help our small business vendors be financially successful and because of the price difference between Styrofoam and compostables, it is difficult for us to impose costs that would negatively impact a vendor’s bottom line.  As is mentioned in Allison’s blog, several of our vendors are already figuring ways to go greener.  Where we can, we try to help our vendors to continue down this path.

In fact we have a committee that is lead by one of our vendors (Ami from Do It Green – attached on this email) called The Green Team which continues to push for exactly what you are talking about.  This committee is open not only to market vendors but folks like yourself from the neighborhood.  I whole-heartedly encourage you to join Ami and her team.  The more people we can get involved with the market, the better it gets.

Thanks for your email…Jeff

Jeff Alexander
Market Director
Midtown Global Market
jalexander@ndc-mn.org

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