This weekend I went to my favorite neighborhood coffee shop and, just like always, reflexively brought along my takeaway mug. But when I got there I saw the signs that — duh — coffee shops aren’t using takeaway mugs anymore in an attempt to cut down on potential contamination. So I got my coffee in a paper cup and, once outside, poured it into my own mug so that it would be easier for travel.
That interaction got me thinking: with restaurants shifting from dine-in to all takeout and delivery, what will the toll be on packaging? Americans already throw out a staggering amount of food and beverage to-go containers, most of which ends up in a landfill. It’s too early to see any new data from the past few weeks, but I’m willing to bet that that number is increasing.
Really, we’re between a rock and a hard place: on one hand I want to support my local restaurants and cafés however I can, which, right now, means ordering takeout. At the same time I feel guilty when I end up throwing away a clamshell container, cutlery, napkins, and a cup and plastic straw every time I get a veggie taco meal with a drink to go.
This quandary brings up a bigger question that will only grow as we continue into the great unknown of post-COVID-19 life: what are we willing to sacrifice? The question applies to several sectors of the food world.
Grocery. Ordering groceries for delivery has the benefit of convenience and brings less risk of contamination. However, if you’re ordering from Instacart or Amazon, you’re supporting an enterprise that doesn’t necessarily take care of its workers the way it should.
On top of that, you might not be able to get exactly what you want, when you want it. Our own Chris Albrecht wrote about his not-entirely-pleasant experience with online grocery delivery, which was both “misleading” and “confusing.”
Food delivery. If you want to support local restaurants/eat delicious food that you don’t have to cook yourself but aren’t leaving the house, food delivery is an easy option. But as our resident restaurant expert Jenn Marston wrote, delivery is not without its fair share of compromise. Third-party delivery services often take large percentages of each sale from restaurants, despite deals that they’re implementing in the face of COVID-19. They’re also notorious for treating drivers poorly.
However, if you’re trying to really do the social distancing thing or are in quarantine, delivery might be one of your few viable options for feeding yourself.
Health. If you’re working from home right now, like most of us are, staying healthy might be a real struggle. Snacking is all too easy when your pantry is right there all the time and filled with dark chocolate peanut butter cups.
Admittedly, eating healthy is likely not the highest priority for a lot of folks right now. And there are tools that you can use to help stick to a balanced diet, if that’s a goal for you right now. But if this crisis lasts significantly longer and people are stuck eating canned foods and takeout with nary a fresh vegetable in sight, we could start having another health crisis on our hands.
Packaging. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, single-use packaging for food is a humongous issue plaguing our planet. Before ish hit the fan with coronavirus, a crop of companies were stepping up to reduce their waste. Sweetgreen and Chipotle were rolling out fully compostable to-go containers with no “forever” chemicals. Pre-prepped meal delivery services like Daily Harvest were also transitioning to compostable packaging. These companies are hopefully still moving forward, but other initiatives, like Blue Bottle’s drive to transition to all-reusable cups by 2020, are likely put on pause.
For now, people are going to prioritize feeding themselves and their families — packaging and ethics are not necessarily the highest concern. Nor they should they be. But I have to wonder: will these questions start to factor in again once things go back to normal?
The truth is we don’t know when things will return to the way they were — or what parts of the meal journey will be permanently altered. Will we go back to our old balance of dining in and takeaway? Will we continue to order out more since many folks have struggled with unemployment and thus have less spending power? How many restaurants will even survive to reopen?
The scary answer is, we don’t know. But you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be here to report on the shifting food space throughout the coronavirus pandemic — with a cup of to-go coffee in our hands.