Environment

Thanks for Feasting Sustainably

Getting past the greenwashing hype to find real ways to give thanks to the planet year-round

by

Growing up in New York City, the times my failing nuclear family of three got along best were when we went out to eat. By age 10, I could order at several Chinese, Spanish, Ukrainian, Italian, and Hungarian restaurants without a menu. Once I hit the teen years and mainly only wanted to eat pizza, there were still 17 different “Original Ray’s” to choose from. So I get, on a cellular level—cells made out of pierogi, bagels with a schmear, jackfruit tamales, and shrimp Pad Thai—why restaurant culture means so much to New Yorkers.

Dining out makes me feel … at home.

But eventually—and I know you’re not going to like this, because I hate it—everything we love changes, around us and without our consent. Take Thanksgiving, for instance, a holiday about to celebrate its 400th anniversary. It’s one that’s given me the warm-and-fuzzies in the past. My mom, who hated cooking, would slide a wiggly tube of “cranberry sauce” out of a can once a year, blacken marshmallows on top of sweet potatoes, and, one time, even attempted a Turducken (an abomination, really). But those warm feelings have been seriously undermined by a necessary Thanksgiving reckoning that, in the past few years, finds me at Native American festivals in late November, hoping to atone even just the smallest bit for centuries of ongoing genocide by clapping the loudest and (genuinely) sobbing to traditional dances and songs.

Americans react to the Thanksgiving rethink in different ways. Some are emphatically done with the holiday as they grew up with it. Others cling to family time and the trappings, while giving their kids some perspective on the matter. And then there are those who dig in their heels and refuse to alter a holiday that reminds them of comfort and time spent with people they love, many of whom are now gone. A 2020 Huffington Post article suggesting that maybe we should cancel Thanksgiving altogether was met with an epic online furor, not surprisingly exacerbated by Donald Trump.

For that last group, I’ll quote the New Jersey state trooper who pulled over my band’s van decades ago when we were driving 90 on a 60 mph stretch of road: “I can understand it but I can’t condone it.” The fact is, Thanksgiving was never as simple a holiday as we’d hoped it was. The same, it must be admitted even by New Yorkers, goes for restaurant culture, now that we know what we do about climate change.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut New York City down, and many who relied on restaurant life were confronted with a new dilemma: “How do I eat?” Takeout and delivery became the survival solution for both customers and restaurants. Since that fateful month, the International Solid Waste Association has estimated that consumption of single-use plastic has grown by 250% to 300%. Only about 9% of plastic waste is actually recycled, plastic can only be recycled two to three times, and food containers and cutlery are the third most common source of global ocean litter. This means the vast majority of that increased waste is sitting in landfills. A measure many took to protect themselves during the pandemic has become a threat to our future.

In a paper recently co-authored with colleague David Morens, Anthony Fauci makes the point that we’ve entered a pandemic era undeniably exacerbated by climate change: “COVID-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature….”

It is easy to connect the dots: The pandemic lockdown increased waste. Waste exacerbates climate change. Climate change will lead to future pandemics. And so the cycle continues, on and on, until it doesn’t. Because Mother Nature cannot be bargained with. We must wise up. Global warming is here, shaping our lives today, and it should be informing everything we think we know about how the restaurant industry needs to function, at every step along the chain: Is the food sourced locally/ethically? What is the environmental impact of serving meat vs. meat alternatives? As more eco-friendly sources of electricity become available, should restaurants move from cooking with gas to electric? (Although it currently has a similar climate impact to gas cookers, as the electricity supply moves toward renewables it will become the better long-term option, according to sources such as the U.K. alternative consumer organization Ethical Consumer.) How does food get to the customer? How are food waste and leftovers handled?

Kermit the Frog was right. It’s not easy being green. In fact, it’s damn confusing. And, to pile on the well-worn sayings, old habits die hard. Take, for instance, the mindless gesture of many restaurants still throwing handfuls of plastic cutlery into our take-out food bags (often plastic bags, because New York City’s plastic bag ban shamefully excludes restaurant delivery). That food is almost always delivered to people who already have access to real cutlery, so it’s a senseless cost to both restaurants and the planet, if you stop to think about it. But when do we stop to think—in this go-go-go town—about old habits? Not often enough. Nationally, it’s taken us 400 years to consider what we’ve really been celebrating when we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner.

Not everyone is willing or able to live like an eco-warrior. Frankly, it can be depressing and confusing, and involves wading through a morass of opportunistic greenwashing. First, not all compostables—a current, heavily relied upon solution to single-use restaurant waste—are created equal. In fact, many aren’t being composted at all. If you’re confused, that’s because it’s really confusing. If you feel duped by yet another industry, join the club. But instead of feeling defeated, take advice and guidance from people who are working with these items every day.

Xander Shaw is operations coordinator at the Salt Lot community compost site, a medium-scale, community-based composting facility in Gowanus, Brooklyn, hosted by Big Reuse, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to fighting climate change and achieving zero waste. He explains, “Compostables are really site-specific. For instance, NYC Compost Project sites hosted by Big Reuse aren’t industrial facilities, and many certified compostables will say on them that they can only be composted in industrial composting facilities. The best way to know how successful your composting efforts will be is to know and consult with the facility that will handle them.”

Shaw points out that people assume things like Whole Foods’ produce bags are compostable “probably because they’re the color green with a lot of writing on them.” They’re not. They’re recyclable. But even though the Plastic Bag and Film Plastics Recycling law is in full effect in NYC, it’s largely ignored by stores that are supposed to comply and collect such items for recycling. Also, Shaw tells me, many bags sold on Amazon as compostable simply aren’t, and Amazon doesn’t take the time to confirm their validity.

The day I visit the Salt Lot Big Reuse facility, a worker plucks a bright yellow shopping bag out of the enormous waste mound they’re hand sorting. It has every composting certification printed on it and, in bold letters, boasts “100 PERCENT COMPOSTABLE.” But since it’s too large to decompose in their facility and too thick to be ripped into smaller pieces, into the landfill bucket it goes, along with a wax-coated compostable paper food container and several seemingly compostable kitchen bags.

Shaw can offer hope in the form of guidance for choosing the best compostable options, although he warns about our staying stuck in a single-use mentality long-term. “If it grows, it goes,” he says, meaning that if it’s a “paper” container made of an organic material—traditional paper, bamboo, or sugarcane, for example—that’s not lined with plastic or a wax coating, it’s compostable. However, he agrees with a Beyond Plastics report that details why bio- and compostable plastics may actually be worse for the environment than traditional plastics. Beyond Plastics is a nationwide project based at Bennington College, in Vermont, that pairs the wisdom and experience of environmental policy experts with the energy and creativity of college students to build an anti-plastics movement. According to that report, there are very few industrial composting sites around, and those are the only types of facilities that can actually break down compostable plastics. When these plastics end up in landfills, the report states, they release methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Growing the crops to make bioplastics takes considerable fossil fuel and water in the farming process, and can include harmful human-made “forever chemicals” in the form of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which can negatively affect compost and soil.

The notion of consumer responsibility and personal choice being a solution to climate change gets a bad rap, and it’s easy to become cynical about it. Especially when you discover that in 2004, British Petroleum paid ad agency Ogilvy & Mather to come up with the notion of the “carbon footprint calculator,” meant to take our eyes off the oil industry’s profoundly negative impact on the environment by shifting responsibility onto our own choices.

So no, it’s not solely down to each of us to turn this cargo ship around. But, according to Sarah J. Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, “The math does, in fact, weigh in the favor of individual actions adding up.” I would add that no change—corporate or legislative—has ever happened without the pressure of the collective will and the public’s voting with its dollars. Our bad habits are encouraged because they line the pockets of the lumbering, bloated dinosaurs that still roam the Earth in the form of corporate greed. So while personal daily choices can only do so much, it’s the cultural mind-shift they create that will save us all.

Plus, the benefits of making an effort can be both far-reaching and deeply personally felt. Ray tells me, “We might engage in pro-environmental decisions for the added fact of desiring to move through our short time on this amazing planet demonstrating that we love it. Love is a far greater motivator for long-term behavior change than guilt or deprivation.”

Native Americans didn’t learn how to appreciate food and nature by attending the first Thanksgiving meal. That gratitude was already integral to their cultures and traditions. How about we take a lead from their example and alter old traditions and habits this November, creating new ones we can carry forward with us.

New Yorkers can get snippy when they can’t buy any item of food they want year-round. This is not a natural state of affairs. There were plenty of fowl available around Plymouth Plantation in the 1600s, so instead of turkey, it’s just as likely that the four men sent by the colony’s governor, William Bradford, to rustle up some dinner returned with ducks, geese, or swans. The point is, they ate what was around them. With the help of Native Americans, who taught them to work the land, vegetables on offer likely included spinach, cabbage, and peas. And everyone was probably chowing down on some mussels plucked from the New England shoreline.

Take-home message? Go local. It’s better for the environment. Shop at farmers markets (bringing your own bags and containers, of course) and no-waste/package-free grocery stores such as PreCycle or the Wally Shop, or stores with bulk items like the 4th Street Co-op, where you can refill your own containers. Seek out local, ethical farms on EatWild.com or LocalHarvest.org, where you can also find a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program to join. Cook some items in advance and freeze them to make preparing your meal less last-minute, which is when it’s most tempting to grab fast, easy solutions that may not be Earth-friendly.

I’ve spent the past few Thanksgivings with my mom, who, you’ll remember, hates to cook. Other people cooking around her also really stresses her out. So, in the interest of holiday peace, I’ve bought a pre-made meal at Whole Foods three years in a row. And while I (think I) believe it when they extoll the virtues of their sourcing and quality, unpacking that meal each year has filled me with remorse, because the food is all jammed into plastic containers. For this article, I asked a Whole Foods rep whether they’re planning to change that. He initially gave me a friendly but standard response about all the eco-efforts Whole Foods has made in their stores in general. But one walk through those stores, which are buckling under the weight of single-use plastic, made me question whether he really understood, or cared about, what I’d asked. Weeks later, he contacted me to add that Whole Foods will start packaging frozen and chilled foods in curbside-recyclable packaging, and that this change will take place by Thanksgiving. We shall see. 

In the meantime, I will do much better.

There are several restaurants and catering services in NYC that are taking their own carbon footprints to heart while serving up holiday meals. Dish Food & Events offers small to large holiday platters using sustainable and local ingredients whenever possible, packaging almost exclusively in unwaxed compostables made of sugarcane, bamboo, and wood. (Remember: “If it grows, it goes.”) Turkeys are pasture-raised, local, and delivered by in-house staff in recyclable aluminum pans (aluminum is infinitely recyclable and ready for the oven). Director of operations Patrick Moriarty tells me Dish will also be donating leftover products to up to 200 clients and residents at Brooklyn Community Housing & Services this year. Moriarty says the company is proud to have made a commitment to eco-friendly practices from their inception, around a decade ago. When I gently broach the idea that the few compostable plastics they do use may not actually be all that compostable in the end, Moriarty looks genuinely crestfallen. “Well, we’re always buying new products. We’re always trying to learn,” he says, and I believe him. That willingness to learn and adapt to new information is paramount.

As Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero-Waste Chef blogger says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

Olivia Cooks for You is a small operation that specializes in local, small-batch, pasture-raised, organic, and grass-fed ingredients. It is offering Thanksgiving meals packaged in compostable paper boxes and trays; deliveries are handled by an in-house team. Eleven Madison Park recently made headlines by switching to an entirely vegan menu. This year, they’re offering a vegan “Thanksgiving at Home” meal, with a portion of the cost of each order supporting their partnership with Rethink Food, which works towards a more sustainable and equitable food system. Thanksgiving at Home meals come packaged in glass jars, recyclable plastic, and aluminum containers and are delivered (in Manhattan) by local courier inside a reusable tote, or picked up at a Brooklyn location.

Order a caramel custard pie with vanilla labne packaged in a cardboard pizza box from Lighthouse, in Brooklyn, which always offers seasonal food and partners with eco-organizations such as Billion Oyster Project, Sure We Can, and BK Rot, and with Cara Piazza, a New York designer who uses vegetable trimmings and peels to dye her fabrics. Lighthouse uses paper and compostables for packaging.

IPSA Provisions boasts of being “a new kind of frozen food company dedicated to changing how—and what—people eat at home.” They prioritize partnering with small farmers, being local and seasonal, mostly organic, and serving meats from farms that practice humane and sustainable methods. While they aren’t fully there yet with their packaging, their Thanksgiving menu is delivered locally by a courier service, largely in aluminum trays and a returnable or reusable freezer tote, and they hope to utilize more eco-packaging as they grow. Their Thanksgiving menu includes a Malaysian-inspired Kabocha squash curry soup, a turkey pot pie, mac and greens, and Petee’s Pie Company’s pumpkin and sweet potato pies.

As long as we’re rethinking Thanksgiving, maybe it doesn’t have to be a huge affair. Maybe a person just wants a nice meal-for-one. Something delicious, something eco-friendly, something that represents the fall harvest.

“Le Botaniste thought about every step of our business, from day one, and we chose the green path,” says Alizée Wyckmans, brand and sustainability manager at the plant-based, organic food and wine restaurant with four New York locations. “I wish the industry would get together on solutions rather than everybody in their own corners, because we could do a lot. We have to do better, that’s for sure.” In addition to packaging largely in compostable paper products, they have a reusable bowl program—utilizing stainless-steel, airtight Onyx bowls—that gives participants a discount on every order. For Thanksgiving this year, Le Botaniste will offer “a feast for pick up” on November 24, including seasonal specials like roasted honeynut squash and Jack Curry spread, along with a hoppy cider.

In talking about bowl-sharing programs, Wyckmans points to Just Salad as having been an industry changer. In 2006, the company started offering a reusable bowl for $1 and a free topping every time it’s used. Just Salad also works with life cycle analysis experts to measure the carbon emissions, water usage, and ecosystem impact of using those bowls versus disposables, and will release its findings officially in 2022. According to Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer, “It’s clear that reusable bowls are much more resource-efficient than disposables. Plus, we save on the initial cost of the disposables.”

While Just Salad doesn’t offer a specific Thanksgiving meal (and they are closed on Thanksgiving Day), they do offer a fall seasonal menu that can be enjoyed before and after November 25. Since it’s estimated that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the U.S. produces 25% more garbage than during the rest of the year, why not extend your celebration of love for the planet by filling a couple of Just Salad reusable bowls and taking them to the park with a friend to enjoy on a blanket under the changing leaves?

If you do order in this Thanksgiving (and beyond), do it through DeliverZero. Their reusable plastic containers are NSF-certified (NSF is an independent testing lab certifying that products comply with standard requirements for public health protection) and each container can be used 1,000 times, potentially diverting billions of single-use plastic containers from landfills. “Opting for a container that can be used 1,000 times,” says DeliverZero’s co-founder and CMO Lauren Sweeney, “is inherently cheaper than continuing to use single-use, including compostables.” She adds, “Our belief is that restaurants shouldn’t have to buy reusable containers themselves, but should be participating in a system like ours that provides them, tracks their returns, and helps participants avoid any start-up costs associated with them.”

DoorDash’s Caviar must agree, as they’re currently collaborating with DeliverZero on a pilot program (use it, so it becomes permanent!) that has the potential to change what restaurant delivery looks like in New York. And thank goodness for that, because, let’s face it—no matter how many times you type “NO PLASTIC CUTLERY!!!” in that little white box on your favorite delivery app, you’re always going to get a handful of the stuff.

On that note, tell your local rep to support the #SkipTheStuff bill, which would require restaurants, food-delivery apps, and online-delivery platforms to only provide single-use utensils, condiments, and napkins at a customer’s request, and not automatically. Even compostable plastic cutlery is problematic, because it’s indiscernible from traditional plastic and most often gets sorted out for landfill so it doesn’t ruin the compost or gum up the machines.

The best answer seems to lie in the ever-growing mantra Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. In this case, “recycle” means you should use and reuse what you already have, not that you should choose plastic packaging and assume its associated problems will be solved by recycling.

We’ve talked about sourcing and packaging, but what about the fact that 8% of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide come from food waste? In New York, it’s up to individuals to find ways to compost, and even though I’m one of them, it can be a lot of work, so systemic change is crucial. In the meantime, Vokashi, in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, and women-led, worker-owned GreenFeen OrganiX, uptown and in the Bronx, will deliver a compost bucket to you and pick it up weekly, to make our busy lives easier. You can also find city-wide composting drop-off locations at GrowNYC.org, and many apartment buildings have arranged for private collection.

Too Good to Go is an app that acts as matchmaker between consumers and restaurants that have leftover product at the end of each day, offering it up super cheap. (Keep an eye out for leftovers the day after Thanksgiving!) And, of course, you can freeze and share your leftovers to get the most out of your meal and avoid waste.

Meaningful change is happening, albeit slowly and not on the scale that we need to see. It can be disheartening to slog through an incredible amount of opportunistic greenwashing in the meantime, and even the best-intentioned people can get confused and overwhelmed. But instead of seeing ourselves as outliers when we show up with our reusables and we refuse the cutlery/bag/plastic lid, let’s take pride in ourselves as people who are facing the future with eyes wide open and a commitment to living on the right side of history. 

The reason I’ve heard most often for why restaurants don’t institute more eco-friendly practices is that “people are lazy,” so they don’t want things to change. In fact, wasn’t “people are lazy” Jeff Bezos’s entire business model in starting Amazon? What a sad indictment of us. Let’s not allow ourselves to be categorized as lazy cannon-fodder for any industry to manipulate. Let’s take pride in our love for the Earth, of nature and its resources, of traditions old and completely revised.

This Thanksgiving—or fall festival or National Day of Mourning or insert-your-new-name-here—let’s continue to examine old habits and traditions and come up with ones that are more meaningful, more honest to who we are and who we hope to be.

As Sarah J. Ray tells the Voice, “None of those who resisted the Holocaust, apartheid, slavery, or colonialism had any evidence that their efforts would amount to the outcomes they desired. If that had discouraged them from their actions, the world would be an even scarier place.”

What will we do to be good ancestors?   ❖

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