Dining Sustainably

Yesterday I went to the Pittsburgh Farm to Table conference and met a lot of great farmers who are doing some really cool stuff, and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about that in the next couple of days.  For now, I want to look at an area that doesn’t often get much mention in conversations about food, and that’s the accoutrements with which our food is served.

How often do you clean up from a meal by simply throwing everything away? Cup, plate, flatware, napkin(s), all away in the trash? How about partway–cup and napkin? Napkin and plate? Napkin? How much do you throw away in a week?

It’s an emerging trend that people carry their own cups with them so they can avoid wasting fifteen-odd foam or paper cups in a week, and I think that’s great. I wish everyone carried a cup everywhere with them, and if you’re not already doing it, I recommend you start.

But I don’t think that people should stop there. It’s incredible how many paper napkins a person can go through in a week, and just as incredible how few you can go through if you carry a cloth napkin everyhwere you go.

I know what you’re thinking—cloth napkins, aren’t those a little fancy for everyday use?

Actually, no, they’re not. They’re utilitarian workhorses that survive multiple meals. That, in fact, is the origin of the napkin ring. Though broken out today in only uber-fancy situations, originally, they were used to stake claim to your own napkin. Napkins were washed once a week, and the messiest eaters had to make do. Those who were less messy didn’t want to inherit someone else’s filth; thus, each family member had their own napkin ring to mark which napkin was theirs.

Beyond being perfectly sound for home use, napkins are very portable. They fold up small and fit comfortably in your hip pocket. I’ve been carrying one with me for the past couple of weeks and I’ve amazed myself by how many paper products I’m able to cut out of the refuse every meal and snack. My disposability rating has dropped tenfold.

Yesterday, in a conference filled with hundreds of people who think progressively about the source of their food and its effect on the environment, most people were not carrying reusable cups. I was the only one who carried a cloth napkin; everyone else threw multiple of the paper kind way away.

I looked around and thought it was senseless that a conference devoted to sustainable food should materialize itself in dining so wastefully. I realized that though carrying a napkin is a small gesture and an easy thing to do, it’s not something even considered by most people. That should change.

It’s a small step, but were napkin-carrying to become standard practice among even a tenth of the population, think of how much less we would waste as a nation. It would be nice if the United States could be seen as leading the way toward being less wasteful and making better use of our world’s limited resources.

Try carrying a napkin and take a step toward making that lofty goal a reality.

12 Responses to “Dining Sustainably”

  1. Martha Says:

    I have an acquaintance at the office who always has a couple cloth napkins in her lunch — one to spread on the (probably filthy) conference room or cafeteria table where she is eating, and the other for traditional napkin use.
    Not only is it sustainable but it also makes whatever she’s eating seem that much more civilized.
    I shall go put a cloth napkin in my lunchbox right now.

  2. sheryl Says:

    Hi there!
    I was at this conference too–and while I don’t carry a cloth napkin(yet!) and didn’t happen to have my travel mug with me(because I was too sleepy at 7:30 in the morning to wash it out)—I was sort of alarmed by the amount of disposables involved in the lunch we were served. Plastic shell package around the wrap, STYROFOAM soup cup(!?!?) plastic utensils, paper napkins. As a caterer I understand the difficulties of sanitarily feeding hundreds of people at a remote location, but I gotta say if I was the person planning that conference, I would have arranged to use the training center’s tableware and dishwashing facilities.
    I’m not even going to mention the Dasani water….oops. I just did.

  3. Michelle Says:

    Hey there. You should absolutely write to the folks of the conference and suggest that they either use the facilty’s washing abilities or that they encourage a Bring Your Own Fork, Napkin and Cup policy the next time they run it and have the disposables not pre-packaged with the lunches but accessible for those who choose not to or forget. Waste is certainly part of the food system.

    I was just thinking about entertaining. Oftentimes you don’t have enough forks, napkins, plates and the like and may wind up buying disposables to accomodate. Do you think it would work to ask folks to bring their own? If it’s small enough you can even mix them all up, allowing guests to choose the items they want, which can be a conversational piece. Either the hostess/host can wash them and return them the next time they see the guest, or folks can wash it and take it when they leave. What do you all think?

  4. jwsharrard Says:

    We have a huge Mardi Gras party every year, and we don’t have enough flatware to accommodate everyone, but with an event like that it’s tough to ask everyone to handle their own. So, we got some higher quality “disposable” pieces (that ought to be called “reusable”) that we are able to run through the dishwasher and save from year to year.

    We always have enough cups for any occasion: Mardi Gras (& other NOLA) parades inevitably have go-cups as one of their throws, and we saved stacks of them through our several years in New Orleans.

    For a smaller, sit-down occasion, though, I’d prefer to be asked to take my own plate than to throw away a plastic one… but I’d prefer not to have to throw anything away if I could avoid it.

  5. MIL Says:

    We reuse all of our plastic ware until it breaks or develops holes. We have been to dinners where everyone brings their own place setting. The clean up is much quicker and then we all enjoy each other’s company.

    On a similar note…when Aurora was a Girl Scout, each of the troop members had to bring a bandanna. The useful cloth served many purposes throughout our forays into the “wilds” of North Carolina: napkin, pot holder, wash cloth, cooling “hat,” handkerchief, and sometimes first aid triangle for sprained ankles or elbow problems. I used to wear a knotted bandanna when I was teaching as an outfit accessories knowing that it might come in handy as for other means. I might start that practice again.

  6. kari Says:

    one of the interesting things in japan was how there weren’t usually paper towels or hand dryers in restrooms, so everyone carried around a little hanky to wipe their hands off after washing them. you can buy them in department stores and they’re very pretty!

    sadly, this was offset by the millions of little plastic bags one got at the store. the worst part about not speaking japanese was not knowing how to avoid getting all those bags!

  7. david law Says:

    I would have arranged to use the training center’s tableware and dishwashing facilities.

  8. kari Says:


    I thought of you when I read this post!

  9. Cloth napkins? | tinychoices.com Says:

    [...] As witnessed in the comments over on the “Easy Peasy Tip: Fork You!” post, ya’ll are totally punk-rock about the green thing. Jesse has a great post on his blog about dining sustainably when away from home, and he advocates carrying and using cloth napkins. Stacey told us that she uses cloth napkins at home, and then the very next day had already brought one into work to avoid using disposables there too– amazing and inspiring! [...]

  10. Corduroy Orange » Blog Archive » Free Cloth napkin Offer—Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is Says:

    [...] I like to reduce wasteful consumption in my life wherever I can. Even a small meal can burn through paper napkins quickly. That’s why I try to carry my own cloth napkin with me—my disposability factor drops substantially when I’m not wasting squares of paper by wiping my grubby paws on them. [...]

  11. Tiny Choices Q&A: How do you dry your hands? | Tiny Choices Says:

    [...] I know what our friend Jesse would say! he would say bring a cloth napkin with you, and use it wherever you go! Actually, on my recent trip to Japan we had to bring handkerchiefs with us because there are not always dryers in the bathrooms. We would use them after washing our hands off, and the habit has stuck with me. [...]

  12. Sometimes I’m a little slow. | Tiny Choices Says:

    [...] When I was out at breakfast with friends in Pittsburgh on Sunday, I noticed that Aurora and Jesse gave their straws back to the server. This was right after Jesse pulled out his cloth napkin, and the cogs started spinning. Call me a little slow, but for the first time ever I realized that straws were wasteful and that I shouldn’t use them! This is ridiculous - I’ve recognized that straws were wasteful (my dad is known for taking straws from restaurants, washing them in the dishwasher, and putting them back to work), but I have never made the additional mental jump to: …ERGO I SHOULD NOT USE THEM. [...]

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