So having returned from a city that treated me so generously, it may seem churlish to complain. But there was one thing that really bothered me. To put it in a simple and quintessentially American way: Trash.
New York generates a heedless stream of needless trash. And while I know that some New Yorkers are deeply concerned, touring the city offers little evidence that anyone cares
A particularly egregious and massive contribution to the daily trash pile is disposable food containers. Virtually every eating and drinking experience I had in New York was served entirely or partially in disposable dishes and cups, with plastic cutlery on the side. Most containers also have lids, which lie around on the pavements, waiting to be swept into the storm drains and into the sea where they will join the tons of plastic already swirling through our oceans.
In 2010, Americans used 23 billion paper cups. This entailed chopping down 9.4 million trees; using 8500 Olympic sized pools of water; and enough energy to power 77000 homes. It generated 363 million tons of waste. Paper cups cannot be recycled as they are lined with plastic. They go to the dump, where the paper rots, but the plastic NEVER DOES. Think about this: Plastic does not biodegrade. The remnants of that take out coffee you enjoyed this morning will be around for thousands of years. (Figures calculated by the www.papercalculator.org and the Environmental Defense Fund, on the The Sustainability is Sexy website)
The Environment Action Association reports a study by Starbucks and the Alliance for the Environmental Innovation (April 2000), which states that each paper cup manufactured is responsible for 0.24 lbs of CO2 emissions. Multiplied by 23 billion, that’s about 24 million tons.
And yet it is not as if the disposable food container culture improves anybody’s life. In fact, it makes the coffee and juice bars a dispiriting experience. You go into them to have a breather and give your feet a break, but you end up standing in line at a counter trying to choose a beverage from a bewildering array. You then perch on a stool designed for discomfort, gulp it down, toss it in the trash, and continue. Joanna and I were completely delighted on discovering The Bowery Diner, which served us tea, coffee, and really excellent blue berry pancakes in china cups and plates with metal spoons. They came to the table to take our order. They brought it to us – it was luxury. The only disposable part of the meal was a tea bag.
For a city as visionary, dynamic, and technologically advanced as New York, this kind of short-sighted wastefulness is shocking and demeaning. So much more can be done. I saw virtually no recycling bins – these should be on every corner. The Blue Hill Café at Stone Barns Farm offers plant-based cups, which can be thrown into the compost. If they can do it, it can be done. Good old-fashioned china cups have served humans for centuries, there’s no reason why they can’t go on doing it. Some websites have suggested that people carry their own cups, and coffee outlets offer a discount for beverages served in these.
With a little effort, it is not a difficult problem to solve, and the political leadership could go a long way by regulating the fast food industry to ensure that they pay for the environmental costs of their containers – they would find them a lot less profitable to use.
This is not just finger pointing. South Africa is trotting happily along the path of mass consumption, and it is only our lack of disposable income (ironic term) that is inhibiting our own trash pile. Let’s learn from this and turn from this path before the habit becomes addictive!