Sustainable options: Ask for what you want


Tiny but useful

To live a more intentional lifestyle, there are plenty of tiny, but useful, ways in which you can alter your everyday routine to live more sustainably. This recurring publication with Evergreen Girls will focus on very small, simple, and specific ways to treat our planet just a bit better each day.

But before we jump in here’s what you need to know about the author: Sheila McMenamin.

Sheila is a self-proclaimed sustainability nut based out of Baltimore, MD. She is a director at a city nonprofit that works to grow Baltimore’s urban tree canopy, and in her spare time, likes to get outside and see as much live music as possible, as well as perform improv comedy. Sheila is mildly obsessed with the #createlesswaste movement, and the notion of simple living and the joys it brings us, especially after her year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She believes that a more sustainable lifestyle can and should be something that is accessible and achievable, at many levels, for all people. The title Tiny But Useful comes from one of her favorite lines in Mary Oliver’s Upstream.

Alright, let’s jump in…

It is a Saturday morning, and you are walking into your favorite coffee shop to catch up on some schoolwork or to meet up with a friend. You wait in line, and when you get to the register, the friendly cashier asks for your order.

“I’ll have a medium latte,” you tell him, “with whole milk. And can I get one of those croissants, the one with all the chocolate stuff inside, too? (The only croissant that matters)” You hand your credit card over to pay, thank the man, and sign the receipt before waiting at a table for your meal.

The latte comes to you in a plastic-lined paper cup, capped with a white plastic lid and wrapped with a textured cardboard sleeve. The croissant is haphazardly served in pink wax paper wrapping stuffed into a silvery plastic packet. Within minutes of ordering your meal that you had implicitly planned to enjoy at the cafe, you have created a table’s worth of trash that, according to countless studies, will last beyond your lifetime on this planet (if you need a visual to understand just how much waste we as humans create, check out this recent article from the New York Times about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” that is rapidly growing off the coast of California).

Sustainability, Tiny but useful, Evergreen Girls, Sustainable tips, Sustainable living
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch / Photo courtesy the DIVE Bible

If you were to replay this situation with just one minor tweak, you could achieve a very different outcome.

“I’ll have a medium latte with whole milk,” you tell the cashier, “and can I get one of those croissants, too, with the chocolate stuff inside? I’ll have both of those for here, please.” The cashier looks at you to make sure he got that right. You reiterate, “I’ll have the coffee served in a mug, for here. And a plate for the croissant. Thanks!” The cashier may stall for a second, but then likely tell you, “Uh, yeah, for here? Sounds good.”

You are handed your coffee in a ceramic, reusable mug, and a croissant on a glass plate. No frivolous plastic, no decorative wax papers, no extra trash created–just the specific meal that you ordered to enjoy at the cafe.

Just like that, you have achieved what I believe to be the most important first step in living a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle–asking for what you want.

Who wore it better?

Living in a society that values individualism but gravitates toward conformity, we have been cultured to accept or assume the status quo. So when it comes to seeking out a more sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle in a country that has normalized waste and environmental degradation, it can feel quite radical to go against the grain and ask for different options–or at least kind of awkward.

And our status quo is nothing to ignore. According to Carry Your Cup, Americans alone throw away 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups each year.

We feel perfectly fine asking for a latte with extra foam, no sugar, and room for cream. Why should it feel strange to finish the sentence with ”in a mug, for here”? I kind of think of it like task delegation at work–you ask a specific person for a specific action, and leave no room for misunderstanding.

That person knows you want that mug, and that you mean business.

tiny but useful, evergreen girls, green, green living
Beyonce Knowles-Carter, enjoying her coffee in a mug, for here / picture courtesy of Pinterest

Your first challenge as an Evergreen Girl is to break this cycle of assumed waste by asking for reusable options and starting a conversation when you are out to eat.

If the generations before us went out to eat without to-go cups, plastic knives and forks, and fancy wax paper, we certainly can too. The goal here should be to get reusable back into the mainstream–wouldn’t it be wonderful if it eventually became a faux paz to not ask for the more sustainable option?

Resetting that norm starts with you, and when you ask your server or cashier for a “for here” option, you are modeling to other patrons that being more eco-friendly is a possibility, and more so, one worth seeking out. When you ask for better options, you show others that they can, too.

sustainability, evergreen girls, trash, green living, live green
Photo courtesy of Google Images, from Hannah Furlong

Corporations and larger entities are of course responsible for the countless ways they hurt our environment and encourage a culture of waste on a massive scale, but we as individuals are complicit too. While we should simultaneously hold our corporations more accountable, we can also work at a smaller scale to alter our own routines.

Here are some lines you can try next time you are out to eat at your favorite restaurant or bar. Remember: Be explicit and own it. It gets easier, and eventually becomes second-nature, to ask for what you want:

  • Can I have my coffee in a mug, for here?
  • I’ll have a glass of water—with no plastic straw, please.
  • I see that you have some metal cutlery back there–can I get a metal fork instead of a plastic one?
  • Can I get this beer in a draft glass instead of a plastic cup?
  • Can I have a metal spoon to stir my coffee, instead of this plastic throwaway stirrer?

You may be pleasantly surprised at the yes’s you get, the confused faces you see, and of course, some of the no’s. There are plenty of restaurants and bars that do not have any other option than throwaway utensils and drinkware. But it can become your first reflex to at least ask.

So next time you are out to eat or drink, try these tiny, but useful, lines to create less waste. If you are successful, let us know! Post a picture of your meal, your coffee, your beer in reusable dishware, with the hashtag #tinybutuseful and #weareevergreengirls

Happy Earth Week!