I’m not much of an environmentalist. I don’t hug trees, I rarely think about energy efficient light bulbs, and I’ve never used the words “carbon footprint” in a conversation. Yet, in my travels this year, the issue of paper and plastic usage keeps coming to my attention. As my friends and family know well, much of what I do when I travel is eat. Naturally, it is at dining tables that I felt most keenly the big differences in how people around the world consume paper and plastic.
When I left New York for Singapore two years ago, I had grown used to the luxurious (some would say wasteful) usage of disposables in America. Arriving in Singapore, I was at first dismayed to find that most casual eateries (of which there are plenty) in this foodie nation do not provide napkins to diners. This “napkin stinginess” bugged me initially but after living there a while I got used to toting around my own tissue packets. If I happen to forget my pocket tissues, too bad for me, I would have to forego the luxury of wiping my hands clean and would have to wash instead.
Other aspects of Singapore’s paper and plastic conscientiousness grew on me. I started to like seeing foods packaged in strange vessels – drinks poured into small plastic sacs tied at the end; chicken rice and char kway teo wrapped in waxed paper; soup is about the only thing that entitles you to the extravagance of a plastic take-out bowl. The inconveniences of dining without free-flowing napkins and disposable containers melted away into a kind of rustic Asian charm.
Going from Singapore to my “summer home” (more like budget rental) in Paris was an easy switch. Although American tourists complained about the lack of proper take-out equipment, I was happy to carry my baguette out of the bakery with only a small square of pastry paper covering its middle. At the markets, free plastic bags are so small and flimsy that I preferred bringing my own foldable shopping bag. If I had stayed longer I probably would’ve splurged on a panier on wheels, like the ones old ladies use to haul their groceries home. At restaurants, I felt more civilized dabbing my lips with cloth serviettes instead of paper napkins. And I came to appreciate why many restaurants don’t do take-out – why bother stocking up on expensive plastic wares? And what insane diners would prefer eating in the solitude of their cramped apartment instead of in an ambient café? The French paper and plastic stinginess struck me as an accidentally green kind of sophistication.
When I left Europe for a visit back to the US I felt a real culture shock. After learning to live with fewer paper napkins and plastic sporks (and liking it), the sight of a delivery boy on my doorstep holding four lunch tacos in TWO separate paper bags, each double wrapped in a heavy duty plastic bag, weirded me out. What’s with the reinforcement? Do the restaurants think a paper bag by itself would’ve torn under the weight of two tacos carried over five blocks?
Open a take-out bag and you’ll find more confounding excess – three full sets of plastic cutlery (fork, spoon, and knife) for a two-person order, a hefty serving of folded tree (in case the food is delivered to a household devoid of its own towels and tissues).
Elsewhere, juice joints stuff stacks of plush napkins into your hand when you buy a single cup of OJ, perhaps expecting a spill every time. Ziploc bags are bought and discarded without a thought. Durable take-out food containers rarely get a rinse and a reuse. God bless America, a land of abundance, especially when it comes to napkins and sporks.
It was another big switch, the biggest one in fact, to land in Beijing after being in the US. I didn’t read the January 2008 memo that banned shops from handing out free plastic bags to customers. So I was the only sucker paying up big bucks for plastic receptacles for my groceries when everyone else whipped out their reusable cloth shopping bags. When it comes to paper, China is and has always been stingy. If restaurants provide paper napkins they’re usually modest, flimsy squares dispensed one piece (and one ply) at a time. Take-out boxes here aren’t so much boxes as paper envelopes fortified with a little plastic.
The dining and shopping experience in China has quickly evolved into a system of BYOPB (plastic bag), BYOC (container – I’ve seen people bring their kitchen pots to the neighborhood restaurant for take-out), and BYOTP (toilet paper). These inconveniences bother me a little, especially when I’ve forgotten to BMO (bring my own). Yet, on a bigger scale, paper and plastic stinginess actually makes me feel better about the shopping and eating that I do everyday. My purchases may make a hole in my wallet but at least they’re not doing the same to the ozone layer, adding to a landfill, or felling a forest.