Leftovers (or Making the Abnormal Seem Normal)

I was interviewed on the radio last Friday about my 365 Days of Trash and an interesting thing happened. I was talking about some of the things that I started doing last year (and still do) in order to waste less and the subject came around to eating out at restaurants. I mentioned the simple ones–try to stay away from fast food, tell them you don’t need the straw, don’t order more than you think you’ll eat, and then I mentioned doggie bags.

My wife and I have two young kids, so more often than not we are left with food on the table. So, assuming we knew we were planning to eat out, one of us will usually bring along a small Tupperware type container and put it in there. As I explained to the gentleman interviewing me, this allows me to save the food that would otherwise get trashed, but negates my need for a Styrofoam take out container.

Now I’ve been bringing my own for a while now, so it pretty much seems like second nature, but the radio host saw it a different way. “Really?” he said, “Isn’t that sort of embarrassing?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that kind of reaction and I’m sure it won’t be the last so I wasn’t taken aback, but it did get me thinking. Why is the idea of standing out, of being so different, so scary?

Now I know that there’s human nature, the desire to not be seen outside of the herd and all. My guess is this comes from not wanting to be eaten first by predators or some such subconscious remnant from our pre-wheel, spear-throwing times (as an aside, it fascinates me then that loud Hawaiian shirts are so popular). But no one at Bo’s Bar and Grill is looking for any human flesh these days so it seems like Tupperware shouldn’t be that scary?

I know I’m rambling a bit here, but bear with me for a second. It seems that my generation has sort of woken up over night and discovered that something is very wrong. We were brought up in this pre-packaged, single-serving, don’t-sweat-the-ramifications-of-what-you-are-doing-because-someone-else-will-take-care-of-it society and suddenly (well it started 20 years or so ago) we are beginning to realize that it doesn’t work so well. We are beginning to wake up and recognize that we need change and we need it fast.

So maybe what we need now is for more people to act differently, to make some noise, to risk being embarrassed. And maybe by doing so, enough people will see what we are doing, follow our model, and then we won’t risk being embarrassed anymore, but will once again be able to disappear into the herd as we pull out our take home containers and pay our checks.

And while we, the “adults” struggle to change our ways and try to do what’s best while still fitting in, maybe we’ll realize that this is a short term problem. Because as we start to make a stand and change our ways, our children will be watching. And if we show them that what we are doing is “normal”–that Tupperware take-home is “normal,” that steel water bottles are “normal,” that turning the lights off and walking to the store are “normal,” maybe that’s just what they will eventually become, normal. And then we’ll have done something.

So what am I getting at? Don’t try to hide your Tupperware, or your water bottles, your reusable bags, or your travel coffee mugs. Walk to work and let your co-workers know you did it and why. Challenge the status quo and throw it out there that what you are doing is not embarrassing, but empowering. And let your children know that being different isn’t something you should be embarrassed about, but something you should be proud of, because you are doing it for them.

Trust me, as the father of two girls who think that scrap paper should be given to the worms in their composter, I can assure you that when abnormal becomes normal, it’s pretty cool.

Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialogue on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. “Give people the facts, and they’ll choose to do the right thing.”


Mervi R.
Mervi R7 years ago

Great idea, I absolutely agree!

Sue Cannon
Sue Cannon8 years ago

Lovely idea taking your own things and refusing all the plastic bags, straws etc. I tried it at college. I had bought a drink in a glass bottle and drank it all in the morning. There was a water cooler outside the class and i tried to fill my glass bottle from that later on.then the college moaned about health and safety and germs etc. I had to pull a plastic cup out and throw it away after use each time it seemed.

Sheila H.
Sheila H8 years ago

I totally agree! I enjoyed your interview on Green Patriot Radio. I bring a Tupperware bowl to get my lunch salads to go. I actually feel proud to bring it, and if it inspires anyone who sees me to do the same I will feel like a tremendous success. Personally, I feel great for not contributing to the tower of plastic salad containers in our office trashcan. I learned my lesson when I didn't select a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight in 2002 because I thought I might be too embarrassed. I let a vague sense of fear of what people would think get ahead of my values and integrity.

Upon any intelligent reflection, pro-environmental actions are admirable and can only reflect well on us in the long run. Even if some of our actions turn out to be miscalculated and not helpful, our intention is admirable and our natural resources are unquestionably crucial to human survival and quality of life. Perhaps we could only be reasonably criticized if we are obnoxious as we go about it. It’s wonderful that the tide of public thought has finally turned so being an environmentalist is seen as a good, sensible idea. And there are still plenty of opportunities to be an environmental trendsetter.

Dmitry F.
Dmitry F8 years ago

Thanks for this thought-provoking article. Since our city stopped recycling styrofoam, we've been saving all our carry-out containers, but it's certainly not a good long-term solution. This is why I'm about to try out a COLLAPSIBLE container to bring along to restaurants.

Claire C.
Claire C.8 years ago

A very simple way to start is this: Each time you go to place something in your trash can look at it and think about how you could possibly eliminate that item from your life and trash, and/or reuse/recyle the item. You'd be surprised how many easy, painless changes you can make from this one simple awareness. If every person in every household did this wow- what a difference it would make!! Get the kids involved - they often have a lot of good,fresh ideas to contribute.Pick someone in each household to be the leader/overseer of the project, and then rotate once a week to keep everyone involved. Eliminate styrofoam take-out containers by keeping the reusable leftover containers in your vehicles, and then they will be with you at the restaurant every time you need one!!

James A.
James A8 years ago

Bravo Dave! Far too long have people been kept silent by peer pressure and the fear of getting a look of distaste from the less informed and arrogant fools that surround us. I've been doing this for years as well as taking things home when I eat out that could be recycled, and even taking things that can be composted which I would not eat.

We put billions of tons of organic material into landfills every year. Organic waste that could make clean safe renewable energy and also be returned to the earth to grow new food and plants and be beneficial instead of a liability that must be disposed of. This organic waste has a gross value of over 1/2 trillion dollars if it were processed through a third generation high efficiency integrated methanization and composting facility such as the ORB biofuels system which I am the inventor of, so you might say I really know my compost. Feel free to contact us and keep up the good work.

Lori M.
Lori M8 years ago

Awesome! The more people who think and act to support conservation the better (healthier, happier) this planet will be. Nice job!

Julieta S.
Julieta S8 years ago

I live in Mexico and is really hard to do things differently... everyone at work mocks me because I'm vegetarian and are always trying to make me eat meat, they all laugh because I bring my own coffee and sugar instead of buying at machines... and laugh because I advice better options. People laughs at me bringing my own bags and sometimes they even feel anoyed at me regecting extra packaging... I have to say that all this anoyed, laughing people includes my family... it's hard... I used to feel bad but I keep thinking that the best way is hardly ever the most traveled one, and keep going, chin high. (I'll bring my tupper, can't wait to see their faces)

Paul Diamond
Paul Diamond8 years ago

Taking your business elsewhere is good idea when a store doesn't meet your standards. However, be certain to let the manager know why you are not coming back.
Too many people take their busines elsewhere w/out5 saying anything. The business may lose some money but they will never know why, they will never change, if we don't speak up and tell them.

Sheila Scheibl
Sheila Scheibl8 years ago

I do have a question... when I swithched to the cloth grocery bags, I decided to take a plastic container of mine to get my sandwich meats at the deli, and they told me I COULDN'T USE MY CONTAINER, THEY HAD TO USE THE BAG THEY PROVIDE. Why? Here I am trying to do my part in not using plastic bags... I even have a bag for my fresh produce so I do not grab one of their bags on a roll. I understand if it comes to sanitary reasons, we have a restaurant at the tavern I help manage, but my container doesn't even need to be brought behind the counter! All they have to do is wrap it in the parchment paper (which I could do without, too) and hand it to me and I will put the sticker with the weight and price on it myself...WHY?