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Evil Fast Food?

by Naomi Harris

So sometimes I forget and use a paper towel. I’ve given in to a few take out meals. I wouldn’t say I’m winning, but I would say it has not been terribly difficult. My habits have changed slightly, as I constantly have Tupperware in hand, and despite my addiction, I’ll choose to skip the coffee if I don’t have my mug with me. I am definitely more conscious of my actions. On some level this has been a personal reflection. On a different level, as other players have noted, it makes me see society in a different way: through the lens of disposable items. As I’ve thought about our society and our reliance on disposables, one of the most recognizable culprits is clearly the fast food restaurant. McDonalds, Burger King, Chipotle, Starbucks, places like Jamba Juice…the list goes on. These businesses are built on getting lots of people in and lots of people out with a paper bag, disposable wrapping, paper cup, and plastic silverware in hand. From the perspective of the No Impact Challenge, these businesses are evil. But we have to ask ourselves, how did they come to be and how are they such a dominant part of our culture?

The fast food industry and disposable items is kind of a chicken or the egg debate. Did the advent of disposable products facilitate the creation of the fast food chain, or did places like McDonalds exist in the first place and realize they could change their business model with the use of disposables?

The success of fast food chains comes from their ability to create standard items with speed and generate high volumes of sales. This volume would not be possible without the to-go aspect, dependent on the creation of trash. Yet, before we blame these businesses, we must inspect the interplay with our culture. Would fast food restaurants have become so successful without customers giving them business? No. For the suppliers to be successful, the demand has to be there as well. Now, I can’t claim to be telling you a factual historical story, but America (and many other countries) have come to rely on products that are fast, cheap, and easy. With fast paced lives and long workdays fast food restaurants fuel Americans, but we also fuel them.

I believe that the people starting these chains did so with no evil intentions, no real considerations of what massive amounts of trash they would be responsible for. In order to grow such huge businesses the owners had to be able to know what Americans would want, what items would be familiar enough to generate frequent sales. In fact,  80% of restaurants fail in their first year, meaning that the ones that succeeded got something right. And, while the older restaurants may have grown after the use of the disposable item, newer successes have been built around them.

I have my own gripes with Starbucks, but it is absolutely genius from a business perspective. Within a few years Starbucks stores were populating the country and millions of Americans were making grab and go quality coffee part of their daily routine. Think you are making a statement by rejecting starbucks and supporting your local coffee shop? Well the words cappuccino, latte, and macchiato would not even exist in our American vocabulary, let alone allow local coffee shops to make business off of them, if Starbucks had not made them familiar to the masses. Yes, I wholeheartedly advocate for supporting local business, and Starbucks has become a huge conglomerate, but maybe think twice about your criticisms before you make them.

While fast food chains built on high volume sales have shaped our culture and become an integral part of it, a movement has been growing against it. One group is the Slow Food Movement, countering fast food and the fast life style, and working to reinvigorate local food and farming. Additionally, there has been recent massive backlash against the fast food industry given the dirty side of undue farm subsidies, animal cruelty, and environmental destruction that allows for the industrial supply chains that keep these business alive. While these are separate from the issue of disposables, they are also one in the same: they perpetuate our culture of fast, cheap, and easy and ignore that the environment is bearing the real costs. Despite the ills of the industry, I will stand by my statement that all these businesses are not evil, and that as much as they exist for their profits, millions of people are thankful customers that happily give them these profits in return for a fast, cheap meal.

So, what does this mean for us and the merits of this challenge? I can cut down on my waste, but the food industry built on the use of disposable items is not going away any time soon. Throw away food containers are almost symbolic of the American life.  I would even claim that it is somewhat of a luxury to be able to take this challenge. I have the privilege of having a Whole Foods a block away where I can go and fill up my tupperware from the bulk section. I have the ability to pay a little extra and spend the time to cook my own meals rather than participating in the cultural practice of getting the most calories out of my  money with a fast food meal. Refusing bags is one thing, but taking down an entire industry integrated with the the way Americans eat is another. However, as with all societal change, it starts with the efforts of a few people, and it takes time. With recognition that fast cheap and easy for the masses is actually extremely costly to the environment, it is time for that change to happen in the food industry. To me, fast food restaurants that have made it will always be due some praise for their genius business models. Yet, like many great industries in the history of our country, they don’t need to be around forever.  Maybe in the future we can admire their past success, but proudly claim that the heyday of fast, cheap, and easy is over.

April 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm 2 comments

Ice Cream and Pedicures: Indulgence can be wasteful

by Naomi Harris

While it has only been two days, I’ve accumulated more points than I thought I would this early in the game. It will take a little time to get used to it and  to remember to always have the No Impact Challenge in mind. The first day I accumulated zero points…until my friends decided they wanted Andy’s frozen custard after dinner. Allured by my favorite combination of chocolate frozen custard whipped with reeses and topped with hot fudge, I didn’t hesitate to agree. Then, walking into the shop, it hit me: I had to think beyond eating the ice cream and consider the points I would get from the disposable container. Already in the shop, my sweet tooth and love of ice cream took over. I decided I would get a point so I could have my custard. I wasn’t sure how to handle it, should  I eat the custard with twinges of guilt for the waste I was generating, or limit myself from indulging while all my friends did? Unfortunately, dessert won over my self control.

My second challenge came when I decided to get a pedicure. A somewhat indulgent activity that I don’t do all that often, after a week of my feet in the sand over spring break I decided it was about time. I enjoyed the foot bath and foot massage, but then came the downside: plastic wrap. This may seem slightly (or very) strange to some boys out there, but part of the pedicure process is applying parafin wax and then wrapping the foot with saran wrap. Yeah, I’m starting to realize the weirdness of it right about now as well. The No Impact Challenge is sure to bring about all kinds of realizations. Anyway, as my feet were being wrapped in plastic, I had to ask the question, does using disposable food wrapping count when its used, of all places, on my feet? Sadly, of course the answer is yes. Who would think a little foot pampering would lead me to getting points? Now I know to think twice before getting any beauty treatments, and, if I go back anytime soon, to make a special request for the nail salon to skip the plastic wrap. If anything good comes of it (besides soft skin), maybe the mental image of plastic wrapped feet will make everyone think twice before they use it at all. (I spared you a real picture.)

On the brighter side of things, while running errands with a friend I stopped her from taking 4 shopping bags. Even though I have accumulated a few points myself, being conscious of my own actions has definitely had a positive affect on those around me. Some of my friends might call me a crazy hippie at first, but explaining the game only spreads awareness and gives me even more  justification for calling my friends out on their wasteful habits.

So far it’s been fairly easy to meet the challenge when at home, but  disposable containers creep up in all sorts of situations when I’m out and about. The key will be thinking out every situation before I participate, and equipping myself with the essential reusable utensils and containers whenever I leave the house. Unfortunately, having a tupperware on me wouldn’t have solved my pedicure debacle.

April 3, 2011 at 7:36 pm Leave a comment


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