A lesson on how to educate eateries about plastics and recycling

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to educate a waitress at my favorite Irish pub down the street, The Dubliner. It started with the straw I requested when she brought me water. It was a straw made of avocado pits, which I wrote about earlier this year in a blog.

I like straws made from avocado pits as they are sturdy and do not have a chlorine taste that the bleached paper straws do. Just for kicks, I asked her why the restaurant went to avocado pit straws. “Oh, because they’re compostable,” she said happily, obviously feeling good about the straws.

server at a restaurant

“Where do you compost these straws?” I asked her. “Do you take these straws and put them in a special composting bin to be taken to the composting facility?”

She paused, looking a bit sheepish, and replied, “No, we throw them in the trash.”

“Just like paper and plastic straws?” I continued.

“Uh, yes,” she said, almost reluctantly.

Throughout the time we were eating at The Dubliner, I had other opportunities to educate her about plastics, explaining that while certain products might say they are biodegradable or compostable, they do not really biodegrade the way people think they do: Biodegradables have to be left in an open environment, and compostables must be taken to a composting facility that will actually accept compostable paper or plastic. She was actually amazed and said she was not aware of that.

I couldn’t finish all of my bangers and mash, so I requested a take-out container for my leftovers. She brought me a thick-walled paperboard container that was not lined with polyethylene to prevent leakage, but I didn’t say anything at the time. After putting my leftovers into the paperboard container, and setting it aside while my lunch partners finished their meal, I tested the strength of the unlined paperboard container. After a few minutes, I picked it up and noted that the bottom was damp, as the Guinness gravy on the mashed potatoes was beginning to soak through the container.

When she returned to our table I showed her why paperboard was not the best container for wet foods. She was astonished and hurriedly brought me another paperboard container that she’d lined with tin foil. When a friend ordered fish and chips to go for her husband, the waitress brought her a paperboard container also lined with tin foil. She was learning!

I explained to her that composting facilities often will take paper and cardboard food containers that have grease and food remains in them because that’s desirable for the composting process. However, plastic containers hold the food safe and secure without leakage, and are recyclable, especially if PET or HDPE containers are used.

We always have a good time at The Dubliner—and that day was no exception. We’re a pretty friendly and funny group, and the waitress knows we are regulars at the restaurant.

I think the next time I go to The Dubliner, I’ll take my own container—I reuse plastic lunch meat packaging that is likely called “single-use.” The packaging is reusable, however, and the lids are secure against leakage and air. I’m assuming, of course, that The Dubliner will allow me to bring in my own take-out container. Given that I put my own leftover food into the takeout container, I don’t think that would be a problem. Most states’ health rules don’t allow containers brought from home to be taken into the restaurant kitchen, but since I’m filling my own container at the table, that shouldn’t be a problem.

My waitress that day received a good education about plastics. For us in the industry, that’s our job. Never miss an opportunity to educate people!

Image: Drazen/Adobe Stock

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