Notes from Seattle: Good to go

Today I was struck with a familiar sight: a polystyrene take-out container laying discarded in the garbage can at work. Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer. Most people know it under the name Styrofoam, which is actually the trade name of a polystyrene foam product used for housing insulation. Polystyrene is a light-weight material, about 95% air, with very good insulation properties and is used in all types of products from cups that keep your beverages hot or cold.

A few facts about Polystyrene:
* A 1986 Environmental Protection Agency report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste. The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.
* Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems.
* These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.
* The use of hydrocarbons in polystyrene foam manufacturing releases the hydrocarbons into the air at ground level; there, combined with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, they form tropospheric ozone — a serious air pollutant at ground level.

The company I work for has nearly 7,000 employees (on several campuses), and the neighborhood also contains many small businesses and private physician practices. Economically, it makes much more sense to bring your own lunch to work, but many people don’t have the time or inclination to pack a lunch before heading to work.

The majority of local eateries package their food in plastic or Styrofoam containers, like the one above. Employers such as mine to do not offer a recycling program for the offices, and so even the packaging that could be recycled (not much), can not be. When I walk through the neighborhood at lunchtime and take notice of all the people walking around with plastic shopping bags filled with plastic or Styrofoam containers, I begin to wonder at exactly how much waste is being created each day just by lunch containers in the neighborhood, not to mention the whole of Seattle. I feel certain that the number would be shocking.

I discovered some wonderful products at the recent Green Festival here in Seattle, sold by a company called To-Go Ware.
The set I purchased contained 3 items:

  • 2-Tier Stainless Steel Food Carrier — Stainless steel is highly resilient, and it won’t leach toxins like many plastics can. It is great for both hot and cold food, and has two separate units, which allows me to keep a side dish from running into my main course. There is also a handy removable plate which separates the two containers
  • Organic Bamboo Utensil Set — Made of bamboo, which is highly durable and can be grown and harvested sustainably, this set contains both flatware and chopsticks. The advantages of bamboo utensils include: heat and stain resistant, therefore they don’t impart or absorb flavors; lightweight, strong and long lasting; and hand finished with top grade natural, food-safe wood oil. Disposable plastic cutlery consists of petrochemicals that are harmful to the environment.
  • Cotton Carrier Sling Bag — This cotton sling bag gives me a hands-free option for carrying my lunch. It has an adjustable strap and added insulation, plus it has a pocket to hold the utensil set.
As an added benefit, the utensil holder and cotton carrier bag were hand-woven by Karen craftswomen living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. These items are produced by the organization WEAVE (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment), a women’s cooperative that strives to create a world where empowered women and their children are free to exercise their rights and live peacefully in a just, humane and equitable society. The organization was founded in 1990, with the intent to empower indigenous women and support their needs and basic human rights. WEAVE’s goals are to provide education and training for displaced women and children from Burma and its bordering areas. They aim to foster the development of self-managing and self-sustaining women’s organizations and community based projects, and to raise the level of awareness of issues affecting displaced women and children from Burma and its bordering areas in partnership with women’s organizations. WEAVE is also a member of the Fair Trade Federation.

Take-away food has become a much more pleasant — and thoughtful — experience!

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