Is Your Salad Habit Eco-Friendly?

The government machine that will grind out 2020 dietary guidelines is already rumbling along. Thanks to an act of Congress, sustainability probably won’t be much of a factor. Nonetheless, consumers are already focused on this dimension. You can see it clearly in fast casual restaurant marketing. Trendy chains are fighting to persuade you that they offer the most eco-friendly food on the planet.

But can you find any substance underneath all the puffery in their branding?

Woke Salads with Eco-Conscious Packaging

It all started with Chipotle selling us ethically sourced, real food. But E. coli took a bit of the shine off that brand. After Chipotle fell back, chains like Sweetgreen and Chop’t stepped up to sell you healthy salads. Reinforcing their green image, they boast of eco-friendly packaging. One of Sweetgreen’s founders, Nicolas Jammet, told the New York Times:

Because it’s part of our ethos, we don’t have a choice not to use it. The Biodegradable Products Institute certifies that all of our packaging is actually compostable.

It’s almost a perfect environmental narrative. Menus that emphasize vegan and plant-based options. Packaging that the restaurants compost assiduously. But there’s just one catch.

A lot of this food goes to busy workers in their offices. And the packaging waste never makes it into a composting stream.  Much of it doesn’t even make it into recycling. It goes into office trash bins. Marc Bellemare, who directs the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota, says:

Most waste occurs at the consumer level. Restaurants and grocery stores don’t waste as much as consumers do. Most of what gets wasted is not frozen pizza, it’s not ice cream, it’s produce, it’s stuff that goes in salad. I suspect that the rise of those restaurants, my intuition is that those will mean the rise of food waste as well, because they sell this stuff to consumers, where the bulk of the losses tend to occur.

Aspirational Goals

So for now, the goals for a food system that’s friendly to the planet is more aspiration than reality. Sweetgreen can sell a lot of salads based on aspiration. But saving the planet will take more than just wishful thinking. It will take real change.

Click here for more from the New York Times and here for more from NPR.

Eco-Friendly, photograph © Marina del Castell / flickr

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October 1, 2018