An Ithaca resident works to make conservation part of his retirement community's collective consciousness.
by Henry "Hank" Stark
In the sustainability package in the online version of ICQ 2004/2 ("How to Leave a Smaller 'Ecological Footprint' "), environmentalist Rowan Sherwood '93 was quoted as saying, "People really care. But when individuals think they want to do what's right, taking the step to bring that about is another challenge." I care. I want to do what's right. And I did take a step.
We've all had experience with those exasperating polystyrene (frequently called Styrofoam, although this is a trademarked name of a Dow Chemical stiff home-insulation product) containers, which restaurant servers use to wrap leftovers. I don't like them, not one bit. You can't recycle them. Their half-life in a landfill is about a gazillion years. And they leak: you should see the back seat of my car -- it harbors an amorphous mélange of soup, marinara sauce, and ice cream that has seeped out of these dastardly containers.
You can imagine how frustrated I get when I sit in the dining room of my Ithaca retirement community watching some of the 325 residents and 200 employees in the serving line, choosing to get their food in polystyrene containers instead of china plates. Some don't even walk back to their own apartments but carry their lunch to a table, eat it, and 20 minutes later throw the containers away.
There are institutional considerations, too. Polystyrene is expensive; we pay thousands of dollars a year to buy these noxious items. And you should see how much storage space it occupies!
Did you notice the word "noxious"? These containers leak toxins into landfills and groundwater. Dow Chemical uses carbon dioxide and pentane as blowing agents to harden the product. When this stuff is burned, the toxic ash is dispersed in the air. Pentane is a highly flammable chemical that contributes to smog. So we are subjected to harmful agents in the air we breathe and the water we drink.
I'm not a do-gooder obsessed with saving the planet, but I do feel a sense of responsibility to other creatures and the environment. So I bought a set of six plastic microwavable, dishwasher-safe containers at my local supermarket. They cost less than five dollars, and I obtained different sizes for appetizers, soups, entrées, and desserts. With them I can keep my sauces separate from the newspaper and mail I always carry in my canvas bag. The dishes stack conveniently, are machine washable, and have an airtight seal. I bring them to the dining room, and if I want to take food home I simply transfer it from my china plate. At home I wash the dishes and then bring them to the next meal. Because of the impermeability of the plastic and the tight seal, food lasts a lot longer.
I was so proud of my simple solution I decided that as long as I could contribute to my own health and the environment, why not spread the word? In our community's monthly newsletter I wrote an article summarizing my ideas, pointing out the quantity of polystyrene take-out dishes we use each year. I thought that if I noted, e.g., that we went through 38,000 foam cups last year it would make an impact.
I enlisted the help of our dining room manager, who issued a ruling that if employees were to eat lunch on the premises they had to use china dishes. Our director of dining and nutrition ordered carry-out hard-plastic compartmentalized containers, which he now lends to anyone who asks for them. Our human resources department has put notices on employee bulletin boards.
Am I happy with the results? Not entirely. The average age of our residents is 83, and I guess old habits die slowly. I don't want to be a policeman, so I don't say anything when a friend walks by with a stack of polystyrene dishes. But there have been small successes. Maybe a dozen people have purchased reusable containers and are using them. And I'm reassuring myself that even if only one person switched and used one washable plastic dish instead of polystyrene 300 days a year, that would still be a significant contribution.
It's a start, and I feel better that I initiated it rather than just sitting back and stewing in my frustration. I've always subscribed to the adage "Instead of cursing the darkness, turn on the light."
Henry "Hank" Stark lives at Kendal at Ithaca. He also wrote the article "Confessions of an IC Music Junkie" in this issue.
Photo by Thomas Hoebbel