As you might guess, being a pizza jockey isn't the most glamorous job on Earth. But hey, as a college student, it helps pay the bills. Having been one myself for several years, as well as a server of other types of food, I have spent many an hour watching how the restaurant business works. One of the inevitable, unfortunate aspects of food service is that an incredible amount of food and materials go to waste. Happily, this doesn't have to be the case. The expertise I've gained in my years of pizza- and noodle-slinging can finally be put to good use other than a few extra dollars: a list of things you can start doing to reduce your impact while dining in or taking out.
1) Take your leftovers home. Even if you don't think you (or your roommates, family or dog) will eat that leftover food, there's a much greater chance it won't go to waste if you bring it with you. It's illegal for restaurants to save anything diners leave on a table, so it gets thrown away even if it looks untouched. Of course, a Styrofoam or plastic to-go box is even less biodegradable than wasted food, so ask if paper boxes or doggie bags are available, or bring your own Tupperware. Moral of the story: Do your hungry-two-hours-from-now self a favor and take it home. You'll spare it from the landfill and enjoy it again later.
2) Conserve napkins. Most of us are guilty of this -- you order some food at the counter, grab a huge wad of napkins, and end up leaving half of them on your table or throwing them away. The automatic-throw-away rule comes into play here once again; the staff will throw those unused napkins out once you're gone, even if they appear clean. Paper waste contributes directly to the destruction of the Earth's already-dwindling, incredibly vital forests. Make life easier on yourself and everyone else by not using (or taking) more napkins than you need.
3) Use cash instead of credit. When possible, try to throw down a few greenbacks instead of always resorting to plastic. Credit card transactions usually produce at least three different pieces of paper, two of which often end up in the trash. Especially when it's a small amount to be paid, shell out some cash and save paper.
4) Support community eateries that serve local or organic food. Locally grown food is important to you and your community in several ways. For one, organic food is produced according to certain production standards that prohibit the use of conventional pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Also, organic produce contains up to 40 percent more antioxidants than conventional equivalents (that's a good thing). If you're not sold on the personal-health argument, think about the planet's health. In terms of local food, since farmers grow it locally, the impact on the planet is much smaller because it doesn't have to travel as far to its final destination (read: smaller carbon emissions). Another perk is that frequenting restaurants/bars/markets/etc. located right in your community keeps you in touch with what's going on in your area, supports the local economy and (hooray!) saves gas.
5) Drink draft beer. Attention, beer lovers. College students, Homer Simpson and everyone in between, good news: You can be greener with your beer consumption, and not just on St. Patrick's Day. Draft beer is stored in kegs -- huge metal barrels that are reusable. Bottled and canned beers come in single-use containers that restaurants and bars often just throw out instead of recycling. So next time you're at happy hour, go easy on Mother Nature and order what's on tap. It also wouldn't hurt to try out a locally brewed beer (see No. 4).
6) Bring your own mug. Attention, coffee lovers. We all have our vices. Some people secretly rock out to Miley Cyrus with the soundproof car windows tightly closed; others fiend for coffee. If you're a regular coffee drinker (supporting the cafe that serves locally grown coffee, of course), cut down on some paper waste by bringing your own travel mug. The life of a paper coffee cup maxes out at about one hour from the time it hits your caffeine-craving hand. A lot of trees have to be sacrificed for your daily fix if you're using a new cup every day. You can spend as little as $5 one time (which is about as much as one large coffee drink from certain -- cough -- Seattle-based coffee conglomerates) and have a permanent container. Many coffee shops are happy to fill your personal mug, and some even give you a discount.
7) Try to skip appetizers and desserts more often. Although some pre- and post-entree additions can be delicious, they can also be wasteful. Studies have shown that Americans waste an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption -- an astounding statistic, especially when you consider another sad fact -- that about 13 percent (PDF) of the world's population doesn't have enough food daily to sustain a healthy life. There's a much greater chance of something going to waste if you order more food than you can finish. If you must do it, refer to tip No. 1 and take your extra food home.
8) Don't get utensils with takeout. This is a big one. Countless materials are wasted with takeout. If you know you're taking your food straight home, where you have your own forks, spoons, knives, napkins, dressings, sauces, plates, bowls, chopsticks, etc., do the planet a favor and ask your takeout place not to give you those items. You'll conserve a bunch of paper, plastic and other increasingly scarce materials, and you can also feel good about saving your favorite restaurant some money.
9) And for my fellow servers, recommend this to your managers: Save your "gray water." This is a great practice I picked up from one of my restaurant jobs. Next to the bin or receptacle where dirty glasses go, keep a bucket with a strainer hanging down into it. Any glasses containing water can be dumped into the bucket. The strainer catches ice, which eventually melts into the water below, and lemons and straws that may have been in the glass can be easily removed. Then the water from the bucket can be used to water plants in or outside your restaurant, or whatever creative second use you can come up with for it.