The Ethical Foodie: Pack up and ship more ethically out?

| 24th August 2016
Ethical Eating-on-the-go is always going to be a challenge. Where are the ingredients from? Are they even in season? And then there's the issue of the waste and packaging...

If you want to make a difference to waste and the environment then you need to think about what you will eat when you're travelling - both for business and for pleasure. It won't be easy, it'll take some planning but the difference you make will be huge writes, TIM MADDAMS our New Voices Ethical Foodie columnist
No more ethical quandary at the till, no more litter in the van and when I do succumb to temptation and indulge in a fizzy drink I know that at least the tin will be recycled, though my teeth may never recover

I'm going to make you a proposal. No, not like that, I am very happily married thank you. I would like to suggest something rather dull that will make a big difference to how your food impacts the environment, and it's easy. In fact, it used to be commonplace and standard - not to mention a down right necessity. The dreary-sounding but decidedly efficient, cost effective and ethical packed lunch.

In these days of 24/7 cafés, fast food joints and mini supermarkets almost everywhere, it's never been easier to buy food and drink on the go. However, once you commit to a more ethical and less impactful way of using food you will quickly find yourself very limited. I'll expand, using the "Fresh" sandwich example which is a favourite.

Let's imagine that you have stopped at a motorway service station/train station /airport etc and you're feeling a little peckish. Off you stride, contactless magic money in hand to acquire a satisfying sarnie to fill the gap. You reach for the egg mayo and realise that the eggs are not free range. OK, sidestep those and head for chicken, same problem...err. No problem, a BLT will do the job, only the pork isn't free range either and now you come to think about it it's not really the right time for tomatoes.

So finally, you opt in the end for roasted Mediterranean veg and pesto, to avoid the ethical issues with the others, but of course none of those veggies are from the UK, in season or organic. Never mind, you've done your very best. So, add to that a bottle of water (Damn, single use plastic bottle, not to mention the madness that is trucking thousands of tonnes of bottled water about the place when everywhere has a tap) and a pack of crisps. So, you end up spending a tenner on some food you don't really want to eat and a drink you would rather not have to wash it down. Then of course you end up throwing out the wrappings and the bottle.

It's worse though, right. Here we are just looking at the fun stuff, the easy bit - the immediate effect. The direct impact if you like, but add in the waste created by sandwich businesses (See Waste - Uncovering the Global Food Scandal by Tristram Stuart if you haven't already) and then we have the real killer. At home you have a left over portion of pasta from the night before last's supper, its homemade, its tasty AND now its going to go to waste.... or something else will.

See what we've done here? We've gone and made a flipping mistake. I do it all the time, late for a train to London for a meeting and dash out the door, coffee in a disposable cup, cereal bar on the train that I know really is just sugar and a few oats held together with who on earth knows what, again wrapped in plastic - and all I can do is think about the homemade bread in the bread bin and that little pot of honey from the guy down the road. We all do it. It's normal.

But, when I was a lad it was not normal! Brace yourself now for some wistful rose-tinted visions of the past circa 1987, when it was far from normal. In fact if you left home without lunch in a box having had a decent breakfast you had basically stuffed up the entire day. Being a forgetful child I was often pegging it home for my packed lunch at morning break time or scrounging a freebie off the diner ladies at school with some forlorn made up story of woe.

No more ethical quandary at the till, no more litter in the van and when I do succumb to temptation and indulge in a fizzy drink I know that at least the tin will be recycled, though my teeth may never recover

Romantic notions of a forgotten past to one side for now, I have been trying to make a difference in my own little way on this front. It started with the purchase of an insulated stainless steel clad coffee cup. My plan was (I do a lot of miles on the road each year) to get my cup re-filled at the various coffee outlets you are all familiar with when out on the road and in need of caffeine. (Thanks must go to Mr Fearnley Whittingstall for his efforts to unveil the non recyclable disposable coffee cup scam) However, once my homemade brew was finished and a stop was required I ran slap into an issue I had not expected in a well-known coffee chain...... It went a little something like this, and I've sketched it out for you npt only because I think it's a bit funny, but also to give you heads up if you're thinking of switching to a permanent cup too.

"Hi, can I please have a cappuccino (The foodie in me already upset at the idea as it's now past midday and the Italians would have a fit, but I can't face a pint of over-heated milk with a hint of coffee that most places seem to think is a cafe latte) "

"To eat in or takeaway Sir?"

"Takeaway please, can you put it in this cup here please?"

"Er, I'll have to make it in a takeaway cup and give it to you to pour in there"

"I'd rather you didn't as I really would like to not use a takeaway cup at all which is kind of the whole point, could you just make it and put it straight in my cup please?"

"No, sorry, I'm afraid its not allowed"

At this point I want to scream, not allowed by whom for heavens sake! But since I'm always having to contain the inner baffled/angry guy I manage to quell my inner rage, after all it's not their fault is it?

"OK, fine, make it in a china cup then and I will pour it in there myself"

"No problem sir, but I will have to charge you the Eat In price if it's in a china cup"

At this point I must add, that the lady serving was taking this all very well, she was trying to keep me happy and keep her boss happy at the same time. She was failing, but that was not her fault. It was my fault for being weird, and by weird I mean caring enough to make the point.

"OK, here's the deal, I say. You sell me an eat in coffee, I'll put it in my own cup, then I'll give you the receipt and you can refund me the difference between the two prices" (It's not much but let's face it I am essentially saving them money as they don't need to give me one of their bastard not actually recyclable cups and essentially I am serving my own coffee. Also, I starting to loose my inner cool)"

Luckily, in the nick of time the manager arrives. Surprisingly she actually says something brilliant!

"Why not use one of the self service machines sir? That way the coffee will go straight into your cup and you can pay the correct price from the off."

"Great idea, thanks."

So, now I buy my on-the-road coffee from the self-service machines and everyone's happy, mostly.

The odd till attendant at the petrol station questions my honesty, after all that could be a double shot super duper god knows what in that cup.... But generally they can't be that bothered and so they take my word, and my money.

I do the same for water, I take a plastic bottle with me and when its empty - here's the killer - I just fill it up when I stop!

Sometimes there's a sign that says "NOT DRINKING WATER" but I am not convinced. Am I supposed to believe that they have two separate water supplies for the place? That one is in someway unclean? And, if it is, and it makes me sick, well it's my own fault for ignoring the signage right? No law suite from me. Then I swan off to my van and get my little cool bag out from the back, full of tasty home made leftovers for the journey.

It's a win win for me. No more ethical quandary at the till, no more litter in the van and when I do succumb to temptation and indulge in a fizzy drink I know that at least the tin will be recycled, though my teeth may never recover.

I get to eat nice homemade food, I don't waste anything at home and I save a fortune. I get to re-use the packaging or make sure it's completely biodegradable and I avoid the queues and the heartburn.

So, before it all gets in-depth confusing and less than great at the ready-to-eat food outlets, pack yourself a lunch.

It takes a little planning, but not much. It's a great solution for leftovers and you can plan your meals better. Win win win.

Not convinced? Too much hassle? I get it. But even if you could manage to make this change every other time a meal- on-the-go is needed it will still make a huge difference. And if that's not worth the extra effort, I don't know what is...

This Author

Tim Maddams is a passionate and creative foodie, unafraid to face the difficult arguments that surround food. Having grown up in rural Wiltshire Tim spent time cooking for various notable chefs in London before a return to the West Country to take the helm at the River Cottage canteen in Axminster, Devon, later taking on a key role within the Fish Fight campaign. Tim now works as a private chef, food writer and presenter, based in beautiful East Devon