Over winter break, between semesters, I decided to look for work and saw that the café in Barnes and Noble was hiring. The last time that I worked retail was when I was 18, and I worked at a failing video store. Since then I’ve worked in the public sector and the nonprofit sector, so in many ways entering retail was a new experience for me. Also, it went against much of my moral compass. A difficult line to straddle for any environmentalist is living a normal life where you take part in the beautiful convenience of many things, and doing everything in your power to not be wasteful. For instance, I love having a car and driving, so I had to reconcile this within my desire to slow down global warming. In this instance, I love Barnes and Noble; I love bookstores. I want to have a book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble one day. I also love a good cup of coffee, and love the idea of a café, of a place to sip a coffee and read the newspaper. Simultaneously, I loathe consumerism and think we need to be sharing resources like books, as well as making coffee at home, which in undeniably cheaper.
Entering the café world during Thanksgiving and Christmas would disrupt my waste reduction receptors. There was no way the café was sustainable. They served Starbucks coffee, Cheesecake Factory food, and had lots of individually wrapped goodies- so there was no way they were a local, organic establishment either. Also, no one would be coming to the café that wasn’t taking a break from shopping for things they don’t need, to drink caffeine that they don’t need but are slightly addicted to. How was I going to navigate this?
The job paid just above minimum wage, certainly nothing anyone could life off of, and so the employees were mostly people like me: students with some time to kill. I thought: Why not sort of infiltrate this corporate world that I often bark against but know very little about? Why not use this as an experiment to see just how wasteful and terrible these places are?
Hence, I present my findings to you in several forms, beginning with the Five Things You Can Do To Help The Corporate Café Be More Sustainable. Then I review the operation in greater detail. I’ll add that everyone that I worked with at both Barnes and Noble and the café were kind, hardworking people. Some of them have enormous drive for retail, something necessary in these times and bewilderingly fun to watch. Others are just trying to earn some coin, and are as frustrated as I am about the way things are handled. We can’t get down on the people doing the jobs. Hate the game, not the players.
THE FIVE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO HELP THE CORPORATE CAFÉ BE MORE SUSTAINABLE
- ASK FOR A MUG: Did you know that these to-go places often have ceramic mugs for when you’re sitting in house? They never advertise them. I wanted a sign that said, “Sitting here? Ask for a mug!” But the practice is for the employee to quickly grab a paper cup to write the order down on the side. The costumer may assume that the paper cup is the only option. Sometimes I asked people if they wanted a mug and they answer, “No, because I may end up taking the rest with me.” That “may” is a big deal. What are the odds, if you’re sitting down to read the paper, that you’re going to bring some coffee with you? I believe some people thought that a real mug was an inconvenience to me, suggesting that I shouldn’t go through the trouble. It’s no trouble! It’s just better for the environment! What if there was no option- only mugs? You’d probably stick around until you were done. It’s more sustainable to use a mug and risk having to return to the counter to ask for a to-go cup because you didn’t finish. But the water used to clean the mug is a much more sustainable resource than the plastic and paper in the to-go cup. Mugs are great for nearly every hot beverage on the café menu, so I encourage you to ask for one. The employees certainly aren’t taught to promote them.
- DEAL WITH SOME MESS: If I ever added too much whipped cream to the top of a white chocolate mocha latte, when I placed the lid on top the excess cream would invariably spew from the tiny lip of the lid. I would do my best to wipe it down but there would always be a few stained drippings. Too often people would ask for another cup. We wasted cups so much at the café. Some wetness on the side of the cup will not harm you, will not hurt you- and you can grab a small napkin from the coffee bar to clean it up yourself.
- REFUSE WHAT YOU WON’T USE: Every time I plated a muffin, scone, or cupcake I’d have to put a large paper napkin on the plate. Anytime there was a to-go order, I’d have to put a plastic utensil and napkin into a paper bag. Every cheesecake went into a plastic to-go container. Every meal came with a small bag of chips. Then, when bussing the tables, I’d collect many plates with napkins that were untouched. I wager many people took their soups directly home, where they have metal spoons, and so the plastic spoon I put in the bag was unnecessary. I try and be specific when I order: “I’ll take a muffin. I don’t need a plate or napkin; I’m going to eat it right now.” Because the adage “the costumer is always right” rings true in the corporate world; you as the consumer have the power to ask for what you want, including asking for what you don’t want. Also, on the coffee bar there are small paper napkins. You can grab one of those instead of being given a huge napkin you won’t need for your scone.
- BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE MUG: Too many paper cups are handed out in one day. Hundreds. Sometimes there are messed up orders and a paper cup is chucked. If everyone brought their own mug they would be keeping so many containers from ending up in the landfill. The cups are even labeled “single use cups”, promoting the idea they are meant for being wasted. These particular cups are made from paper and plastic. The paper, like other organic material in a landfill, wants to break down but has trouble because there is no oxygen in the landfill and microbes have a difficult time rummaging through the inorganic matter to find their delicacies. Therefore, these cups slowly break down anaerobically (without oxygen), which creates methane gas that turns into a greenhouse gas, breaking down our atmosphere, (i.e., global warming). And when I say we go through a lot of cups, I mean 100s every single day and all of them will be landfilled.
- EAT SOMEWHERE ELSE: Each individual sandwich served at the café comes shrink-wrapped. To prep, I had to put on a pair of disposable plastic gloves, cut the wrapping off the sandwich, place the sandwich onto a sheet of waxed paper, and stick it in the oven (which is always on). Then I trash the gloves and help other costumers while the sandwich cooks. When it’s done, I put on another pair of gloves, place the sandwich on another piece of waxed paper, wrap it up, and place it in a to-go bag with a paper napkin and a small bag of potato chips. Boy, the sandwiches look good, too. I’ve never had one, but they come out of the oven ooey-gooey. The problem isn’t in the product, (although who knows where the meat and veggies are coming from!); the issue is in the amount of paper and waxed paper used to get the sandwich from the fridge to the plate. The two pieces of waxed paper will get landfilled for each sandwich, and the waxed paper will, like the to-go cups, break down anaerobically. You may not think about it, but the sandwich you order has lots of waste even behind the counter. I say you go eat somewhere less shrink wrapped, but if you have to eat there, it’s okay to say, “Please only use one piece of waxed paper for me,” or whatever else is helpful.
SO, HOW UNSUSTAINABLE IS THE CAFE?
Well, they make a fuss that the café is not a Starbucks, that it only serves Starbucks coffee, so I can’t tell you exactly what the practices of a full-fledged Starbucks is, but I can talk a bit about a corporate café. The biggest issue is the food waste schedule. If you look at the bake case you’ll see shelves of delicious looking cupcakes, cheesecakes, cookies, and more. These products have a shelf life of approximately two days. The mocha syrup is tossed after 24 hours. The chai comes in a non-recyclable container, and we use at least one per day. “They” (the corporation) want five of any one item on a tray in the bake case, meaning that the employees do a constant dance of thawing the baked goods, cooking them, leaving them to cool, and plating them. They have to, at the beginning of the day, cook and thaw enough to fulfill this five-item average. Smart employees (and most of the people I worked with) did their best to not over thaw or over bake items. Once thawed, once baked, these items get a sticker stuck onto their plate stating that in 48 hours they needed to be trashed. The café is not composting, so when I say trashed I mean landfilled. The sandwiches and soups get the same treatment. This means that there are many, many tiny stickers daily to label every item. The stickers are a very effective tool and are easy to use, but they are very wasteful.
Coffee is only supposed to sit in the container for two hours, meaning that every two hours the dark roast, medium roast, blonde roast, and decaf coffee urns are poured out and new coffee is made. Believe me, that is a lot of wasted coffee.
At night, everything in the cooler is covered in Saran wrap and in the morning everything is uncovered, the wrap thrown away.
The café goes through to-go cups at an alarming rate. This includes paper sleeves and plastic lids. That’s three components to any one drink, all of which tend to end up in the landfill. (People are very bad at taking the lids off to recycle separately). The sleeves are compostable, but that probably rarely happens. Each set of 25 cups comes to the café in a plastic sleeve. So every 25 costumers there’s a wasted plastic sleeve. By the end of the day there are seven trash cans that are typically half full- sometimes completely full. These cans get emptied nightly. Thankfully the café recycles all their cardboard boxes and numerous milk gallons, (at least six are used every day). The wasted bake case food is accounted for. I don’t know what the corporation does with the info, but hopefully they use it to calculate best practices to reduce food waste.
The other largest waste is receipt paper. For every transaction the register prints a receipt, which the costumer can, but rarely does, take with them. Receipt paper has a coating on it and in the state of Vermont it is not recyclable. Literally ever costumer produces a receipt that we end up throwing into a trash can. Around Christmas that means two receipt rolls of paper per day!
Overall, there is nothing served at the café that isn’t easy to buy from a mom and pop shop or to make at home. With the exception of the cheesecake, that is, but I’m sure there are some local bakeries rocking cheesecakes! Shopping at the Barnes and Noble café helps college students and hardworking individuals earn paltry sums, but nonetheless is helps pay the way. I’m not against the idea of a café or the people working there. I’m upset with the poor sustainable practices. If you are going to get a latte or some other useless thing, (I think anything but straight coffee is silly), please refer to my tips. Until we put extensive pressure on corporations, they have no reason to change their practices. It’s up to us to complain to corporate, not to the employees who have no say in what happens on the larger level (except for quitting, but that’s a black hole industry). It’s up to each person to ask for no napkin, no plastic utensil, to use a mug or bring a reusable container.