by Colin Johnson
Thumbs down. That’s where the history of bringing home leftovers has gone.
Ancient Romans brought their own napkins to banquets, using them to tote leftover specialties such as stuffed dormice and boiled ostrich meat. Two thousand years later, we can’t transport our half-
eaten sandwiches home without oversized petroleum-based containers that, after their brief and senseless lives, spend eternity in landfills.
So recently at a Milwaukee restaurant, when I told the waitress I’d like to bring home my leftover club sandwich, which prompted her to return with a Styrofoam container and a white plastic bag, I vowed to start toting the modern-day version of the Roman napkin: Tupperware. Within the week, I bought two Tupperware containers and tucked them in my car trunk, earmarked as leftover transportation systems. That was the plan, at least.
One pleasant summer evening soon thereafter, I was driving home from Cabela’s with my college-age son and happened past the Orchard Ridge landfill at the juncture of Germantown and Menomonee Falls. In the twilight, the acreage looked like a harmless moraine, for its garbage was tucked under a blanket of dirt and grass. I parked my car alongside County Road Q.
My son has never known a world without plasticized, single-use conveniences. I, however, was born in the year of the plastic dry-cleaning bag (1958) and graduated high school in the year of the plastic grocery bag (1977). I remember an era before the 13-gallon kitchen garbage can liner and the 100-calorie Ziploc bag. Now, as an average U.S. citizen, I’m throwing away 63 times as much plastic as when I was born.
From our parking spot, the multiple pipes emitting invisible methane were the only giveaway that Styrofoam and plastic bags from every sandwich portion I brought home rested in a place such as this. I put the car in gear and continued home – my son, myself and, in the trunk, that unused Tupperware.
Today, 10 percent of this country’s oil supply is being used to make and transport disposable plastic.
You might think it would take an act of Congress to turn us around, but you’d be headed in the totally wrong direction. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ushered in an era of biodegradable dinnerware in federal cafeterias in 2007. In March 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives kicked out biodegradable coffee cups and welcomed back their old friend – the toxic, oil-based Styrofoam cup.
They dug in their heels with a June 2012 vote to keep using it, a move that prompted Bill Maher to go on the attack.
“Democrats,” Maher said, “were trying to set a good environmental example by trading Styrofoam for a risky and untested technology called cardboard. I know. Needs more study. But Republicans blocked it by a vote of 178 to fuck you.”
Whole countries have banned single-use plastics, but in the United States, it’s clearly a bottom-up war: Individuals, restaurateurs, store owners and communities are the commanders and foot soldiers. Thus far, about 100 U.S. cities have enacted some sort of Styrofoam ban. In addition, 79 U.S. cities have banned plastic bags (42 this year alone), and more are considering a ban, including Houston.
Milwaukee is not on either of these lists.
Last week, my boss treated three of us to lunch at the East Side’s Comet Cafe. At meal’s end, I found myself in a now-familiar and increasingly annoying position: I wanted to bring home my leftover sandwich, but my Tupperware was nowhere at hand. It sat in my car’s trunk, where it had been since the day I bought it. Not to worry. This time, the waitress returned with something forward-thinking: a cardboard box.