Lileks: What will keep my cold food cold and my hot food hot?

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2014 - 8:40 PM

The Minneapolis City Council is considering a ban on takeout coffee sleeves. You know, those things you slide on your double-latte half-CAF nutmeg-dusted skim swaggachino to keep your hand from getting too hot. I know what you’re thinking: Boy, making fun of Starbucks-style coffee nomenclature is So. Funny. Can do you something on frustrating automated phone menus next?

Oh, be nice. This is serious. Those sleeves are recyclable, but we all know most go in the trash. Same goes for the cups and those plastic lids with the tiny holes scientifically designed to turn coffee into napalm, but the sleeves are the real offender. By banning them, there will be less waste. But my palm will be incrementally warmer, you say. There might be temporary discomfort.

Perhaps. Restaurants will adjust. Either they will serve you coffee in thicker cups or recalibrate the coffee so it’s always tepid. You’ll manage.

THIS would cause OUTRAGE; good thing I’m making it up.

The City Council is, however, considering a ban on polystyrene containers for takeout food. No one will miss them. Yes, you’ll pay more, but an extra dime won’t make you walk around naked wearing a barrel held up by suspenders. The end result means less waste.

And it’s a bad idea. Maybe. Let’s back up for a moment.

No one really likes polystyrene foam; nothing says “grim lunch at your desk” like eating out of a white plastic clamshell with three compartments. The lids are supposed to snap together, but you’d have better luck setting a bone by wrapping it with Post-it notes.

Styrofoam cups are worse: They say “cold, institutional coffee in a miserable break room lit by a garish fluorescent light, with safety posters on the wall and a microwave from 1992 whose interior looks like something painted by Jackson Pollock during his ‘gravy’ phase.”

On the other hand, they are useful. Alternatives are more expensive. If you wanted to discourage their use, tax them. This would require restaurants to put up signs, of course, which would be a pain. The restaurant would have to keep track of the number of foam containers used and remit the money, preferably every quarter, cross-referenced against invoices, subject to audits. Inevitable metro-section story about the rise of the Foam Container Black Market, which was discovered when a deli owner sold a takeout meal to an undercover agent.

“Hey, that’s a good price for the meal, considering the onerous foam tariff.”

“Yeah, well, I know a guy.” Wink wink.

“OK grab the wall and spread ’em.”

No, it’s easier to ban them. It’s always easier just to ban something. I’m surprised we haven’t gotten around to plastic bags yet. For the record: I hate and despise plastic bags. When you’ve just bought a jar of pasta sauce, a jug of juice and scround of ice cream, and the bag person asks “paper or plastic?” he might as well ask, “Do you want to get everything in the house or have it dumped in the parking lot?”

I have reusable bags and — this will really sound Minnesotan — I have them for each different store, so I’m not rubbing it into their nose that I shop elsewhere. But sometimes you forget the bag. Sometimes you just get a few light things, and a paper bag is too much. So you go with plastic, and if people look down on you as you cross the parking lot, well, the devil can take them. You may even get a few sly looks of admiration: Good to know there are still a few rebels around.

Then there are packing peanuts. Banned in New York City come 2015, and no one will complain. They stick to everything, can’t be swept up — the slightest breeze from the whisk broom sends them scurrying away — and you can’t crunch them into something smaller. The manufacturers will probably just change the dye to orange and sell them as “Circus Peanuts,” and no one will notice.

So why is a polystyrene foam ban a less-than-fantastic idea? Because some things need a sturdy foam container. Because we should be allowed to choose. Because there’s satisfaction in seeing a superior alternative win in the marketplace on its own merits. Mostly because one gets cranky when you suspect your elected officials have a list of things to BAN and are working through it one item at a time.

Irony: Centuries from now, they’ll dig up Styrofoam in the landscape.

“Look at this — they had developed an apparently eternal material that could never decompose. It appears to keep cold things cold, and hot things hot. What wonders their age must have had! What brilliance, what ingenuity! Let us see if we can recreate this formula that we may rediscover the Lost Secrets of the Ancients.

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