Reducing Waste from the Work-Day Lunch

Ecoagents are cutting back on our wasteful use of plastic - one spork at a time. 

Compiled by Clare Casey and Tom Nichols

Interview by: Norm Clausen

Many years ago, scientists drew a line in the sand separating man from the animals based on our use of tools. Tools like the spear, the torch, the mighty spork. Part spoon, part fork- is there anything it can’t do? Then, of course, we found out that all the primates, some rodents, and even many birds use tools. So that theory went out the window, and a new distinction was drawn. It is our ability to hold onto these tools separated us from the animals.

It makes sense. It would be counter productive to find or make new tools every time one encountered the same problem-a waste of energy and a waste of resources. But this is what the rest of the animal kingdom does. When Mr. Otter finds the perfect rock to split clams, he doesn’t put that rock in his back pocket for later use-he drops it and finds another one later. Same story goes for Mr. Chimp and his anthill poker, and Mr. Crow and his crudely fashioned nutcracker. No sporks, mind you. When apes learn how to make sporks, we’re all in trouble.

So what does this have to do with us? Well, it seems that in the pursuit of convenience, our quest for disposable tools-forks, knives, plates, bags, and yes, even sporks-has led us the opposite way down the evolutionary path. We’re now emulating behaviors that haven’t been seen in a humanoid species for over 1.36 million years. In the mean time, we’ve leveled over half the world’s rainforests and wiped out thousands of other species to produce enough paper and petroleum for these products that are the emblem of our own de-evolution. In fact, if we travel further down the path of rainforest destruction, these disposable products could be the downfall of our species.

How can we re-evolve, save the rainforests, and save ourselves? We speak with Anna Ayers of Ecoagents-a nonprofit organization striving to lessen our impact on the planet and our dependence on rainforest resources. Her answer? Just stop using disposable junk. So simple a caveman could do it.

The Ecoagents are involved in social and environmental issues all around the world, but tell us about your work that’s most immediately relevant to New Yorkers, and that’s your Eco To Go program.

Eco To Go is a great way to use a minimum amount of paper and plastic when ordering delivery and takeout. It’s an easy way to tell the restaurant no extras-no napkins, no plastic forks-just make it Eco To Go. The restaurant or the customer can initiate, so it’s an interactive campaign, and it’s really taken off in New York. Almost everybody that we approach these days is already doing something to conserve, but they’re very happy to have a something for the customers to call it now-"Just make it Eco To Go."

It’s a great way to help the environment, and we’ve gotten some new restaurants, We got a new chain in Texas that just got started with Eco To Go, so it’s picking up some momentum all over the country, and we’re really happy about that.  We have even had inquiries from London.

How many restaurants do you currently have and what local neighborhoods are big on the program right now?

We originally started on the Upper East Side, and we’ve have spread. Now we’ve got places in Brooklyn and the Chelsea area, and we’re going to be teaming up with Reuters, to do a Times Square Campaign. I’d say we have right around 50 restaurants, so we’re definitely spreading throughout the city.

It’s really a win-win for customers and restaurants. Not only are the customers happy to be using less resources, but the restaurant is also saving money, and I’m sure every restaurant would love that. As well, people see the sticker on the window, and as a restaurant owner, you inform customers that you’re doing your part to help the environment. It’s just a great way to minimize resources and reduce costs.

Most of the time I’m taking food back to my place or to work and I will usually have utensils there. I have a drawer full of plastic silverware, because I hate to throw all that stuff away.

We do not need extra utensils or a big plastic bag for your pack of gum. It’s creating a new awareness. You know you don’t need it and now it’s about realizing where all of those resources come from. Creating Eco To Go was something we wanted to do to make a tangible link as to how our actions here actually impact the Amazon Rainforest. It’s hard to imagine the link when we’re so far away. But paper comes from trees, and plastic comes from petroleum, and some of the resources come from the rainforest.  If we make that connection and realize that we don’t need everything that we’re using, that would be a great step.

I see it already-standing in line at Duane Reade and people in front of me are saying, "I don’t need a bag, I don’t need a bag." So people are already trying to make a difference, and that’s great.

How will people know if a restaurant is participating?  You can find the sticker with our logo on a window near the front door, and at the register as well.

I know that the Ecoagents are also part of a much bigger picture in the global ecosystem. Tell us a bit about your work in the Amazon Rainforest.

Eco To Go is one of the programs put on by Ecoagents, which is our nonprofit organization working directly with the tribes of indigenous people that live in the Amazon rainforest. We teach them about their rights to their land, so they’re not signing anything away to different people and companies that come in for their resources. Many times, they’re not aware of the things going on in the outside world, so the more information they have before globalization comes to them, the more prepared they are to protect themselves.

So, we started an institute for tribal rights, and now we’re working with a group of very empowered women to preserve their culture and communities. Their teenagers grow up and become influence by consumerism and globalization, and they don’t remember their culture. So these women are working on preserving their culture and teaching the children the dialects of the different tribes. It’s a complex issue, but the culture has to be preserved, and they’re the last ones to do so.

Ecoagents is a non profit organization, but most of the funding has come out-of-pocket, which is amazing. You’re really putting the greater good of the world on your own shoulders. But is there a way that the people of New York can help, whether it’s by donating time or funds?

Yes. Go to our website, or send us a direct email at

As you expand your work in the rainforest and at home, where do you see the Eco To Go goals in the long term?

We would like to work on limiting the waste in office space. So much waste goes into over-printing when we have computers, and we can just read the documents there. And packaging is big-everything is overwrapped, sealed, and stuffed with Styrofoam peanuts.

We’re hoping that now that we’ve put this idea out there, people will continue to come up with creative ways to apply it. There’s no end-all, final answer, but once we all start being creative, there’s no stopping the momentum. That’s what this is all about. We just want to get more people involved, and make it easier for those people to save resources.

"Just make it Eco To Go!" That’s all you have to say.

From the Jungle to the Concrete Jungle

Healthy Living NYC Magazine

For a humorous illustration of reducing work-day lunch disposables, see Tom and Clare in this commerical.


Posted on 10/22/2009 in recycling, Reducing | Permalink

Contact Info

The content of this site is managed by the Sustainability Web Publishing Team.  If you have comments or suggestions please contact us via email using the links below.  If you are interested in volunteering to support the team, please contact Kristen directly.

Kristen Adams, Department of Anesthesiology

Dorysel Mora, Department of Neurology