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.