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It was 1998, and I was sitting at a restaurant with an old yogurt container in my bag.
I’d brought it for potential leftovers.
However, my dinner date—who was often accepting of my environmental antics—would not be okay with my container making an appearance at this fine dining establishment. It would embarrass her too much. How was I to navigate this?
This has been a common scenario for me over the past 20 years. Yes, I have been using my own to-go containers for that long. And I still get embarrassed.
Many of us eat and drink the majority of our daily calories on the go. Thinking about how we can make a positive environmental impact and maintain the same lifestyle can be daunting. A few simple changes to a routine, however, can make a big difference—especially amplified over many meals.
For me, the seed was first planted when my environmentalist father bought me a reusable lunch bag. On the one hand, I loved it—it had drawings by renowned marine life artist Wyland all over it. On the other, it embarrassed me. I was pushing into my teen years. All the other kids either purchased their lunches—my school had a Pizza Hut in the cafeteria—or used brown paper bags.
Fast forward five years, and I was rocking the Wyland lunch bag on my college campus. I loved filling it with homemade treats in reusable containers. The embarrassment I felt at school had stopped. But going out to eat was a different story.
One day after class, I went straight to a restaurant with friends and had brought along my empty containers. When everyone was asking for to-go boxes and the Styrofoam arrived, I grumbled. My friends loaded their food into the Styrofoam, but I busted out my containers instead.
I thought I was clever—until one friend made a rude comment and the server gave me a dirty look. I didn’t understand and I felt embarrassed. I was saving the restaurant money and practicing some of the eco-responsibilities we’d been learning in our college classes. Why was it making everyone—and now me—so uncomfortable?
Things that differ from societal norms tend to make people uncomfortable—all we have to do is look at our current political climate to see evidence of this. But here’s the thing: the only way to change our societal standards is to act outside of them.
To paraphrase Marianne Williamson, when we embrace who we are, we give others permission to do the same.
That day at the restaurant, I almost took the shame bait (in the form of Styrofoam) to fit in. I was learning about environmental destruction in school, and my dad had been preaching about it for years. But it took that moment to finally take hold. I thought of the animals and their loss of habitat and endless landfills. So many landfills.
I had to make a choice. I wouldn’t be another human contributing to them.
According to the EPA, almost 30 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste is from containers and packaging. This is defined as items intended to be created and discarded the same year. Vox reports that 10 percent of that is solely from single-use items. And packaging is the largest category of municipal waste. Plastic Oceans states that nearly half of the plastic production (350 million metric tons) is used for single-use products.
Natural Resource Defense Council cites that single-use packaging is the primary source of plastic pollution in our oceans—an estimated 269,000 tons. And World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
So, cutting down on our single-use items could have a greater impact than recycling or changing our transportation habits, although both are recommended.
Why does it feel shameful and outside the norm to be helping the environment? And why have I—for 20 years—been the only one at the table who seems to care?
Today, shame still dangles over me. Sometimes I take it in and hold onto it for a while before releasing it. Maybe so much of my shame and embarrassment comes from a life of knowing I am different in the way I act out my values so consistently—at least this is what my therapist tells me.
It isn’t about feeling bad for not following the norms. The shame is about not fitting in, about feeling like I don’t—and never will—belong.
But here’s the thing: I don’t need to fit in—I belong to myself and to this planet.
When 67 percent of fish species and a staggering 96 percent of people in the United States have plastic bits in their body, I know my shame is misguided. I know guilt will haunt me if I stop reusing containers.
Here are some fun anecdotes and cautionary advice to inspire you to do more of the first two R’s—reduce and reuse.
How to avoid being yelled at by a manager who thinks you’re stealing salsa:
Have you ever been to a Tex-Mex joint that has a salsa bar? I both love and hate them. The variety of salsas is great, but the single-use plastic ramekins are wasteful. To avoid getting up from the table every few chips, you have to take four or five of them. And more if you want some for your meal.
I regularly bring a glass bowl and lid for my leftovers. So, when I was at my local Tex-Mex place one afternoon, I went to get some salsa and thought, oh, instead of taking five of these ramekins, I will use my bowl, fill it enough for the meal, and enjoy.
This saves the restaurant and environment of excessive single-use plastic. Plus I’d get to relax during my meal without repeatedly having to get up.
As I got to the table—proud of myself for my choice—the manager approached me and proceeded to yell at me. He didn’t ask what I was doing, or tell me that I couldn’t use my own container. He only repeatedly yelled that I was stealing his salsa. Who did I think I was?
Appalled and unable to shake the shame, I had to leave. That manager lost one of his best customers that day.
The moral is, there will be critics, and some people will not want to be reasoned with. For them, different equals wrong.
What’s the takeaway? I have learned to communicate and make sure employees are aware of my intentions. That day, I could have told my server how much I didn’t appreciate having to use throwaway ramekins and that I planned on using my reusable container instead.
How to get a milkshake at the fair in a pickle jar:
I have had two long-term partners whom, prior to meeting me, didn’t care much about environmental issues. Oddly, once they understood that I brought my own containers, both of them felt no embarrassment whatsoever about using them.
One of them got two maple milkshakes, back-to-back, in an old pickle jar at the fair. I’d brought it for water, but once it was empty, why couldn’t we use it for milkshakes?
Perhaps, because the idea was new and it was being presented by someone they loved, it didn’t seem strange. Plus, they knew I wouldn’t buy the milkshake if it had to come in one of the 500 billion single-use, nonrecyclable cups used each year.
How to stop freaking out over takeout:
My local ethnic food restaurant has a huge takeout following. I usually dine in, but on the occasion I want takeout, they have no issue using the containers I provide.
At first, asking them was weird. I was nervous and afraid of their judgment. I kept thinking they wouldn’t understand why I was doing it. And, I don’t think they really did. But, it didn’t matter—they were happy to save the single-use containers they had to pay for. Now, they tell me others are asking for them to do the same.
The more we—as a society—follow the path we know we need to in order to become more sustainable, the more those acts become commonplace.
The takeaway? Just ask. I get wrapped up in what I think someone will say, but I never know until I hear it from them. The worst they can say is no.
Navigating potlucks and parties:
I have a titanium spork and cloth napkin that I always have with me. When I go to potlucks or parties, I also bring a stainless steel cup and a plate. They are lightweight and easy to hide in a bag. If, when I arrive, I see there are single-use items, I use my own. If not, they stay in my bag.
Each time I do this, it gets easier, but it has yet to become easy. If I know the host and attendees well, I am confident. If not, it’s harder. I struggle with choosing between being accepted and being myself. I usually choose to be myself, though, and the planet thanks me for it.
How to slip up and be human:
To be honest, at times I slip up and forget my reusable containers. Those instances aside, there are certain situations when I choose a single-use item on purpose.
I was invited to a post-wedding gathering of a new neighbor, and they insisted I sit and be served. I had brought a plate in case there was food, but communicating which food items I didn’t eat already felt disrespectful. So in this situation, being kind was more important than refusing his single-use plate. Luckily, the plastic utensils and napkins were on a separate table and I used my own.
There are also times my embarrassment overtakes me. Maybe I’ve had a hard day, I’m feeling particularly raw, or I’m afraid of rejection. Whatever the reason, I just can’t bring myself to ask the cashier/server/host to use my container. Those times are always the most powerful. They force me to look at what is holding me back. Also, the guilt in those instances serves as a driving force, and usually, the next time these feelings arise, I feel the fear and do it anyway.
In the beginning, every difficult emotion passed through me while refusing single-use containers. Now, with experience under my belt, I have fewer rough times.
I’ve been ahead of the times, for sure, but I haven’t created anything new. The environmental movement started before I was born. It has had its ups and downs, but it continues to grow. Bringing my own to-go containers still causes others to give me weird looks—and high fives—from those who haven’t seen it before. Thankfully, though, a lot more people have seen it—the cultural shift is happening.
I’d estimate I have saved well over 10,000 containers of all different varieties. (This includes bringing extras to share with friends.) I don’t know what this equals in tons—or pounds. But I know that if I had used them, despite my best recycling efforts, some of these containers would’ve ended up in the landfill, the forest, the ocean, a bird, you or me.
Knowing—with certainty—I avoided this is worth all the embarrassment in the past, present and future.
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