The restaurant industry has suffered major losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the shutdowns began in March 2020, many restaurants had to adapt their business models overnight, relying mostly on take-out orders as their source of income. Take-out sales increased dramatically to keep customers safe and keep local restaurants afloat.
However, this also dramatically increased the amount of disposable materials needed to fulfill these orders. Restaurants started purchasing and distributing more single-use materials like takeout containers, to-go bags, to-go cups, straws, stirrers, utensils, condiments, and napkins in response to the demand for to-go orders. While some of these materials were essential to keep restaurants in business, we feel that an important change can be made to benefit the restaurant owner, the customer, and the environment.
Take-out orders should only include accessories like utensils, napkins, condiment packets, stirrers and coffee-lid stoppers, aka “stuff”, if and when the customer requests them. Restaurants often include all these items by default, but in reality they are unnecessary for most customers who will enjoy their meal at home or at work, where they likely have all the accouterments they need.
The restaurant pays for these extra materials, purchasing by the case, but is this a necessary expense? If they are included in every order automatically, but the customer didn't want them, it's a waste for both parties. This extra “stuff” becomes a burden to the customer who must decide whether to use it because it’s been automatically included whether we wanted them or not, stash it away in a drawer for later, or throw it out.
The vast majority of these single-use items cannot be recycled and end up incinerated or in landfills. They add to our plastic pollution crisis, littering our streets, parks, rivers, and oceans—entering the food chain along the way. As most of these items are made from petroleum, they degrade very slowly in the natural environment, contain toxins, and contribute to the climate crises. This is also an issue of environmental justice: both plastic production and waste management facilities are disproportionately sited in low-income and minority communities.
The proof is in the data. Eastern Long Island Chapter volunteers have recorded data on 158 beach cleanups between 2019 and 2022. In just four years, our volunteers have saved 1,425 pieces of take-out “stuff” from our beaches: 687 plastic utensils, 335 plastic stirrers, 340 paper napkins and 63 wooden stirrers. Plus, those are just our numbers, there’s no telling how many more have littered the environment in that time.
We are asking East Hampton Town to consider a “Skip the Stuff” law, requiring all East Hampton restaurants provide single-use take-out accessories by request only. We see this as a benefit for all: the customers can still receive these items if they ask for it, the restaurant saves money, and the environment will see a lot less plastic waste.
Check out the Eastern Long Island Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation's website for more information about this campaign and how you can get involved.