Greening the Employee Holiday Meal

I wish this were a story of a big project I did that made a big difference, but this one is only about a personal choice that made a small difference.  It’s still better than nothing!  And you can’t always change what big organizations do, but you can change what you do–so maybe you could make a little choice like this one!

I work for a department of about 40 people running two social science research studies and several associated substudies.  Most of the time we’re sort of in our own little world here.  But we are part of a megaconglomerate “health system” that owns a bunch of hospitals, medical practices, research facilities, and a health-insurance company; it is one of Pennsylvania’s largest employers.  The System provides each of its tens of thousands of employees with a Holiday Feast each December.  This event inevitably takes on a somewhat standardized and mass-produced tone, but I do appreciate getting a free Feast.  What I don’t understand is why it has to produce so much non-recyclable, non-biodegradable garbage.

In the 13 years I’ve worked here, the System has used a variety of Feast Distribution Procedures, but the array of food served has been remarkably the same each year.  I’ve come to think of these items as Standardized Feast Units.  They make up a generous meal that tastes pretty good.  (It’s mighty salty, sugary, fatty, and low-fiber for a Health System, though.)

Many years, the Feast Distribution Procedure has been to give employees a list of the days and times when the Feast will be served in each hospital cafeteria, with each employee ID badge number receiving one free Feast.  Four of the hospitals are within walking distance of my office building, so I’d just pick a time that was convenient for me but unlikely to be a popular (crowded) mealtime.

My first year, the Feast Units were set out on washable dishes, which we placed on washable trays along with washable utensils and paper napkins.  Only the beverages were served in disposable containers: your choice of aluminum can of soda or paper cup of coffee, plus a plastic cup of egg nog.  After eating, we tossed the cups and napkins, recycled the can, and put the tray of dishes and utensils on a conveyor belt to the dishwasher room.

The next year, the washable dishes had been replaced by red and green disposable plastic–polystyrene, which is not very recyclable and leaches endocrine disruptors into food, especially hot and/or greasy food like many of the Feast Units.  A year or two later, the washable utensils had been replaced by plastic packets containing plastic fork, knife, and spoon and paper napkin.

Since 2003, the washable trays have been replaced by big Styrofoam trays–a huge chunk of eternity in your hand just to carry your Feast Units and disposable dishes from the serving line to the table!  It appears that the System cafeterias have now closed their dishwasher rooms, deleting jobs in favor of increasing garbage.  (I wrote some horrified letters about this at the time but got only “thank you for your feedback” form letter replies.)

Some years, including the last two, the System has used a different Feast Distribution Procedure for those employees who do not work in the hospitals: We are informed of a specific day when the Feast Units will be made available in our office building.  (Well, one year they made us go to a different building two blocks away but provided no place for us to sit while eating–that sucked!)  The advantages of this Procedure are that we don’t have to walk somewhere in the cold and that we are more able to customize our portions since the buffet is self-serve.  The disadvantages are a reduced array of Feast Units (no fruit salad or egg nog), a drastically reduced air of festivity (the hospital cafeterias always made at least a token effort at decorations and music; whoever drops off the Feast Units here does not bring a single strand of tinsel), and–if you can believe it–even more garbage!!

If I had taken one of each Feast Unit served yesterday and the servingware intended to accompany it, after feasting at my desk I would have had in front of me

  • 1 big Styrofoam tray
  • 1 meal-size Styrofoam clamshell box
  • 1 plastic salad bowl
  • 1 plastic-and-foil salad-dressing packet
  • 1 plastic bread plate
  • 1 plastic butter tub with peel-off lid
  • 1 wedge-shaped cardboard box from a dessert individually packaged in Minnesota (This is a change of Feast Unit: We used to get desserts made in the cafeteria.  They probably weren’t any healthier, but at least they were local.  Tastes like somebody loves me!  I ate the Turtle Pie but could not figure out which of its long list of ingredients was derived from turtles.)
  • 1 plastic cookie wrapper
  • 1 plastic fork
  • 1 plastic knife
  • 1 plastic spoon
  • 1 paper napkin
  • 1 plastic packet that had contained the above
  • 1 aluminum soda can
  • 1 plastic cup

Only the soda can is recyclable.  Only the napkin could be composted–if you take it home.  All the rest of that goes into the trash (or rather, the giant trays that don’t fit into office wastebaskets are left lying around near wastebaskets) and then it goes to the landfill, forever.  Happy holidays….

Last year, I minimized the damage: I wedged my salad and roll into the clamshell box with the hot foods, didn’t take a butter or cookie, drank my soda out of the can, and used the metal utensils I had in my office and a paper napkin from my desk drawer.  (I bring back surplus ones when I go out to lunch.)

This year, I planned ahead: At home, I put an unbreakable dinner plate, metal fork and spoon, and earth-friendly snack plate in a large plastic bread bag.  Then I took my plates to the conference room and scooped my Feast Units onto them.  I did end up taking salad dressing (wish I’d thought to bring a bottle from home and then take it back) and the Minnesotan Turtle Pie.  I took the pie out of its box onto my plate; even though I wasn’t able to do this neatly, it looked a lot more appetizing on a real plate than it had in an opened-on-the-dotted-lines box!  I didn’t get a soda and just drank water from the drinking fountain in my coffee mug, which I had washed for the occasion.  After eating, I dropped the paper napkin into my office compost bin and took home the dishes in the bag to wash.

A classy Feast?  Not especially.  But I enjoyed it more than last year because I didn’t have to touch Styrofoam (it feels so squidgy!!) and I had plates I could easily carry to the elevator instead of a bending tray full of awkwardly lightweight and slippery items.  And I kept 11 plastic items out of the landfill.  Imagine the impact if every System employee brought her own dishes!

Happy holidays!  How will you make them greener?  Visit Your Green Resource for ideas!

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

6 Responses to Greening the Employee Holiday Meal

  1. I love that you did that. 🙂 We bring our own glassware, utensils, cloth napkins, glass straws etc. everywhere we go to reduce our waste! We are actually on week 15 of project green foot; trying to create zero-waste. We have of course created some waste, but in 15 weeks we have a small basket of trash- the rest is in our compost or in the recycling!

  2. ELEVEN plastic items??? Just for you??? Insane. But goodness, one person CAN make a big difference if she can single-handedly keep eleven pieces out of the trash!

    (I hate clamshells.)

  3. How much do I love the phrase: “eternity in your hand” Bringing your own is a great choice.

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