Almost everyone I know has that drawer—you know, the one that collects unused sauce packets, plastic-wrapped utensils and paper-covered straws, all sitting unused, waiting for that one fateful moment when someone might need them.
I have tried very hard to not hoard these little plastic and paper items. I don’t use the restaurant-delivery apps. When picking up food to go, I ask restaurants to hold the utensils and extras. I have ketchup and forks and napkins at home!
And yet: I have six packets of soy sauce, five mini containers of margarine, three plastic forks wrapped in plastic, and two Taco Bell “Fire” sauce packets in my silverware drawer.
I took stock of these tiny forgotten products after reading about the new effort in the city of Palm Springs to reduce foodware and food waste. As of Jan. 1, Palm Springs restaurants must use reusable foodware and reusable condiment containers for on-site dining. Plastic is allowed, as long as it isn’t “polystyrene,” or the rigid “Styrofoam” you often see used for to-go cups or boxes. It also prohibits single-use plastic bags, straws and stirrers, and any individual single-use condiment packages.
The ordinance also includes a requirement, taking effect next year, that any disposable products like straws or packaging be made from biodegradable materials. (Here’s the full breakdown from the city).
Palm Springs isn’t the only municipality ringing in the New Year with plans to cut down on single-use packaging and/or food waste. Carlsbad is set to do away with single-use flatware come 2023. Maui banned disposable foodware as of Jan 1. Montgomery County, Md., expanded a polystyrene ban this year.
These kinds of rules often generate eye-rolls and online outrage from people who are concerned about the higher costs of more-sustainable products, and those who just don’t see why it makes much of a difference. Palm Springs’ restaurants, which have gone through it over the past two years trying to navigate operations in the era of COVID-19, are certainly feeling the financial pressure right now; the idea of the city implementing these new rules at this particular moment may feel onerous. (The implementation was already delayed to give restaurants more time to recover from the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.)
To address such concerns, there are scholarships and hardship waivers available for restaurants that need support during the transition or are concerned about cost. And the city will soon implement a pilot program to provide reusable foodware that restaurants can use for on-site dining or to-go orders to help reduce use of disposable foodware.
Palm Springs City Councilmember Christy Holstege said the city wants to assist businesses in making the transition—and explore innovative ways to make the transition. So far, she said, she hasn’t had anyone reach out with concerns about the move to more sustainable policies; in fact, “green tourism” is increasingly important for destination cities like Palm Springs.
“We know millennials and customers are looking for this,” she said. “Personally, when I eat at a restaurant, and they have reusables, that’s a place I want to frequent. This is about the future, and we have to think about making sure Palm Springs continues being a place that cares about sustainability.”
In fact, younger generations helped kick off the efforts in Palm Springs. Holstege pointed out the fourth-grade students at Desert Learning Academy who created public-service announcements about concerns regarding disposable straws and foodware, saying they’re part of “a generation of very young people who are asking us to protect the environment, and seeing the obvious impact of plastic waste.”
Such transitions are frightfully necessary when you look at our waste habits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. generated 292.4 million tons of solid waste in 2018. About half of it—146 million tons—wound up in a landfill. And based on the resonant response to Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, many of us are feeling quite helpless about how we treat our planet.
In Palm Springs, this is the moment when the policy must be embraced in order for it to be successful and make a difference. Some will argue that individual compost or recycling habits won’t have nearly the effect that large-scale decisions—like divesting from fossil fuels or using more renewable energy sources—might yield.
But we shouldn’t throw up our hands and do nothing in our own corners of the world. Making changes in our own businesses, neighborhoods and eating habits can do more than make us feel better; it can contribute to a collective effort to reimagine the way we consume and dispose.
At the very least, I’m going to put the sauce packets on the kitchen table. Maybe I should use what I already have.