Fast Food Litter


There is an annoying problem that cities must deal with consisting of wads of napkins and wrappers for fast food all being discarded on city streets, often inside of light paper bags. In other words, one persistent and annoying form of litter.

What is the source of this problem? At least partly, it arises because clerks thrust far more napkins than anyone needs into bags that fast food is served up in. But clearly that is just part of it.

Also implicated is the hidden assumption that every retailer must provide abundant packaging for everything she sells. This fairly recent idea is not a necessary assumption by any means. It would make much more sense for us to adopt the assumption that every product goes into a container (bag, plastic dish) that the customer owns. It could be a container that the customer brings with him. A cloth bag to a grocery store is an example. A covered, washable, plastic dish to a takeout place is another example.

(In case you see nothing but problems with this suggestion, may I suggest that you put the problems aside for a moment and try to figure out how to make it all work, rather than not work. You will be surprised how easy it is to find ways to make deposits and containers convenient and workable. You may find you are good at this kind of product and social design. You may even like the redesign process and want to apply it widely).

The problem is always the same. It revolves around responsibility. A disposable bag and napkin (a disposable anything) soon has no owner that cares what happens to it. The reigning assumption is that it can be put into a trash container if there happens to be one, otherwise it can go in the street BECAUSE NO OWNER HAS RESPONSIBILITY! A plastic dish, even if it just has a deposit on it, has an owner who will take it home to wash and use again. The pregnant question is what kind of society do we want to live in? One where people cause harm because they are urged to be irresponsible citizens? Or one where responsiblility for the consequences of our actions and choices is inculcated and taught to children. The Scandinavians seem to have done well with the latter choice. But Americans, living a vanished frontier dream, are still pretending that there is so much space that they can always move on and start to despoil some new ground.

That takes care of the bag. What about the napkins? What function do they serve. They are there to keep you clean, and that can be easily accomplished with a convenient spray of water, so this overlaps with the recommendations for eliminating water bottles (see below).

However I think there may be a better design, that is very conservative of water. I am thinking of a mist that uses very little water, that can spray all over a hand, and that can be mass produced and attached to each drinking water fountain. Imagine a pair of small plastic openings just right for inserting a hand into, located in many public places. When a hand is inserted into the opening, a sensor causes a mist or light spray to immediately spray it. One of the openings sprays water with a small amount of detergent in it (one drop), just enough to feel a soapiness. The other sprays pure water. First you insert your hand into the washer, move around your (greasy) fingers, and then insert your hand into the pure water spray. A few teaspoonfuls of water is all it would take. These could become universal, accepted and expected to be found everywhere.

As always, with these Zero Waste designs, the main point is not the particular design but to show that with some creative thinking, there is no need to accept wasteful, irresponsible, garbage based thinking. Let us find the ways to solve these social, commercial and industrial problems with a blossoming of new designs that do not in any way depend on some dump and garbage can being available anywhere.