Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Where to toss that cup and spoon?

Sep 09, 2016 by Julia L F Goldstein

Last time I was at my local Yogurtland store, I noticed something new. They are always coming up with new flavors, so that isn't what I mean. When I walked over to throw away my cup and spoon, I saw it: a clear plastic cylinder that exactly fit my yogurt cup and special compartments in which to toss the spoon and napkin.  

I asked the manager about the bins and whether the new process was corporate-wide. He said the setup did come from corporate, but each store could choose whether to participate. I tried unsuccessfully to get data on how well the system is working. Perhaps they don't know, or the answer is that it isn't working so well. One problem with driving consumer compliance: my local store still has standard trash cans, so customers may toss their cups and spoons there without noticing the new bins.

The secret to getting consumers to recycle and compost is to make it easy and automatic. Molly Moon's, the Seattle-area ice cream shop phenomenon, has accomplished just that. Every consumable in the store is compostable. One bin for everything, with nothing going to landfill. It's simple and brilliant.

I don't agree with everything that Molly Moon's does, however. I heard Molly Moon herself speak at the GoGreen Seattle conference in March. Her story and her mission is compelling, and she's an engaging speaker. I love that she pays her employees a decent wage and offers full benefits, including healthcare, to all employees. But in the effort to use more organic ingredients in her ice cream, she switched from sourcing conventional sugar from farms in Washington state to buying organic sugar from overseas. That doesn't strike me as the right decision. 

Still, Molly Moon's handles trash much better than some other food establishments. Ivar's, for example, is trying to do the right thing by serving its fish and chips in compostable containers, but the whole system is too confusing. Paper trays, bowls, and cups (but not lids or straws) go in the compost bin, along with napkins and leftover food. But the small containers of ketchup and tartar sauce go in the trash can, along with straws. Some drink containers are recyclable but not compostable. 

The result of this confusing system is that customers may accidentally put stuff in the wrong bins, causing cross-contamination problems for the companies that haul away the garbage, recycling, and compost. Or figuring out what to put where and separating the napkins from the ketchup containers may be such a pain that people might just toss everything into the garbage. 

I think the best long-term solution is probably to continue to develop better compostable materials to be used for a variety of food service items, with prices low enough so that restaurants will be willing to buy them. 

How are your favorite food establishments handing trash, recycling, and composting, and do you care? What would you like them to do to make the process easier while saving resources?