Somewhere on the California coast, between redwood territory and the Bay Area, lies the world’s most self-righteous coffee shop. My boyfriend, Ted, and I stopped there two summers ago for some much-needed caffeine. But as we queued up to order, handwritten signs confronted us from all angles. “We don’t use disposable cups, utensils, or flatware,” they sneered. “BYO or get out, you earth-hating douchebags!”
OK, that’s not exactly what the signs said. But that was the spirit of the message, and the coffee shop did, indeed, decline to serve anyone who hadn’t packed her own containers. Including us, though we tried to explain that, hey, we really loved the reusable thing, but we were traveling light and had left our cups at home.
“Sorry,” the barista said sweetly. “No mug, no love.”
Ted eventually stalked back to the car and rummaged around until he found an empty aluminum water bottle in the backseat. The whole incident left a bad taste in our mouths, and not just because of the way our latte reacted with the bottle lining.
I’ve been thinking about that holier-than-thou coffee shop lately as I’ve embarked on my latest challenge: to eradicate throwaway plates, cups, utensils, and takeout containers from my life. I started the experiment with some trepidation. Sure, I was concerned that restaurant employees might snicker when I asked them to please put my takeout chili in a Tupperware sandwich cube. But more than that, I was worried about coming off like that California coffee shop to everyone within earshot: smug. Self-righteous. Like I was turning up my nose at all the mouth-breathers unenlightened enough to sully the planet with their paper cups and single-use doggie bags.
Still, as your humble guinea pig in this experiment in green living, I immediately put all that aside — or I would have, if I could have remembered to pack my own stuff. I kicked myself for forgetting a reusable leftovers container when I stopped for an impromptu noodle bowl; I was unprepared when I got thirsty at the movies.
I finally got it together for a weeknight takeout dinner from a “sustainable sandwich shop” in my neighborhood. A place that prides itself on locally sourced turkey and seasonal veggies seemed like a good bet to ease into the BYO program. I stashed a few reusable containers with lids into a canvas grocery bag and slung it over my arm. “Hey, Ted, should I pack you some?”
“Um, no,” he said. “That’s kinda weird.”
Fine. Trailblazing has always been lonely work.
Once there, I ordered a large beet salad from the fresh-scrubbed young man behind the cash register. “I have a strange request,” I began, hoping this would read as “charming” rather than “aggressively superior.” “But can you put the salad in this container I brought? Just so we don’t have to use anything disposable?”
To his everlasting credit, Sandwich Guy hopped to it quickly, even though I was clearly the first person ever to ask him for such a thing. “Uh, sure. We can do that.” He did hand me the salad in a paper bag, but I didn’t make a show of returning the wrapping. You know — don’t want to come on too strong the first time out.
It got easier. To avert disposables emergencies, I tossed a few flatware items in a bag last weekend before heading out to run errands. Sure enough, we got hungry halfway through our list and ducked into a little joint specializing in Salvadorian cuisine. After we ate, I excitedly waited for our server to come around so I could refuse her leftover containers. She never did check back in, but I piled our extra pupusas into my Tupperware containers all the same.
The more I committed to being my own meals on wheels, the more natural it seemed. I was even tipped off to a salad bar downtown that takes your picture if you BYO bowl. When I met Ted there for lunch the other day, even he asked, “Hey, did you bring a container for me or what?”
So many bowl-toting diners were already adorning the walls, the employees didn’t even bother to snap my photo. Now that’s encouraging, I thought.
Remember the dark days when people looked askance at reusable coffee mugs and canvas grocery bags? In just a few years, these accoutrements have lost their weirdo-hippie luster and faded into the background of daily life — because more and more “regular” people started using them. Could we be on the precipice of a similar, flatware-powered revolution even now?
We will be if you — yeah, you — toss some Tupperware into your bag and start using it. Try it with your leftovers, your takeout cheeseburger, your self-serve frozen yogurt. The more people do it, the less oddball it’ll seem.
But do me a favor, okay? Don’t be a douchebag about it. It’s hard to listen to the message when all you want to do is slap the messenger.
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