The Unsustainable State of Serving | The American Word

American Word Logo
An American University student-run magazine since 1999

The Unsustainable State of Serving


Jaclyn Merica | 4/23/16 5:11pm
| Updated 4/23/16 5:28pm

Jaclyn Merica /
American Word Magazine

It’s a perfect storm: it’s long after midnight on U Street, and all you want is a greasy helping of mac and cheese from Ooh’s and Ahh’s, served in a delightful styrofoam cup. Slightly tipsy, you forget your sustainability creed at the first whiff of crispy fried chicken and peach cobbler. You sit on the curb surrounded by trash littering the gutters and gobble down as much as your queasy stomach can handle. However, this convenient comfort food comes at a cost. Often times, food purchased after a drunken escapade is forgotten and left to spoil, but that occurrence isn’t limited to instances of intoxication. Roughly 40 percent of food in the United States goes to waste.

The food-service industry and its consumers comprise the largest amount of food waste per year. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, industrialized countries waste almost 222 million tons of food a year, which is nearly the entire net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa. Such a number is glaringly evident when working in the food-service industry. Half-eaten meals and once used straws are tossed in the trash with little thought. Untouched pizzas from large parties are thrown out while homeless people sit outside our restaurant asking for help. At my work, the management says legal reasons prevent them from giving the food to the homeless at the end of the night. 

Dining out at restaurants is a difficult task while being waste-free, but it’s not impossible. I’ve made a lot of mistakes while dining out, but I’ve also made a lot of insights into trash accumulation. Sometimes my plate is taken before I can collect my waste, and I can only rummage through the trash in a restaurant so many times before my dignity is tarnished. As I’ve mentioned before, I always carry a bag with me to hold my waste from a meal. By the end of the meal, my bag is filled with napkins (if the restaurant doesn’t use cloth), utensils (if the restaurant doesn’t use silverware) and straws. I take all of my recyclable and compostable waste with me to dispose of it properly.

For my part, I’m still maintaining a waste-free lifestyle. However, the problematic aspect of dining out is that the restaurants themselves are not sustainable, so even though I ensure I make no trash, simply ordering the food creates trash if the restaurant doesn’t recycle or compost. Ordering food or dining out is necessary for my hectic lifestyle; I don’t always have the time or energy to cook a big, sustainable meal at home in between meetings, work and class. A solution is to research sustainable restaurants in your area and know which ones are committed to lessening the negative impact we have on the earth. Utilizing their sustainability makes your life much easier – you can get a quick meal and still feel certain you’ve contributed no waste. However, don’t believe everything you read online. I went to one restaurant that advertised itself as a sustainable business but instead used its compost and recycling bins to hold more trash. Dedicating the time to searching sustainable restaurants in your area makes your dining options much easier.

Drinking is much easier than eating when you’re waste free. Utilizing the beers on tap is my go-to option on a night out since kegs are refilled. I have my beer and leave with a pocketful of lemon wedges, coasters and napkins when I’m done. Canned beer is good in theory, as long as it is free from packaging when it is delivered to the bar. A good thing to note is since 1989 the FDA mandated plastic rings on six packs to be photodegradable, meaning they decompose with light. Therefore, cans of beer can be sustainable as long as you take them with you once you leave the bar (and hide them from the employees so they don’t think you’re walking out with full beers). Unfortunately, glass liquor bottles are all thrown away after use. I’ve gone to multiple bars where the paper products, cans and glass bottles are all thrown into one bin, even though all of those products are easily recyclable, whiskey gingers are a thing of the past when I go out with friends. Feel free to ask the bar or restaurant where they put their bottles at the end of the night, and let that decide what you can drink. I’ve found it is easy to drink as long as I make conscious decisions on where my drinks have come from and where they will end up.

On this Earth Week, take some time to consciously consider where your waste goes once you’ve left the restaurant or bar. Too often products that can be composted, recycled or reused are thrown out for convenience. We need to educate ourselves on how to be better to the earth and each other. We are in need of a drastic cultural and social transition to more sustainable practices to ensure a beautiful earth for generations to come.