This story begins with trip to a poke restaurant that I frequent. Relevant to this story is the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, more on that in a bit. As I enter the restaurant, to my surprise they have changed the containers they use for their poke bowls. Instead of round plastic bowls, they have begun using rectangular cardboard containers. This is mildly annoying given that I think the bowl is a better vessel for my food but that, dear reader, is not the point of this story. Instead, it was the reason the staff gave for the change which was frustrating, albeit not particularly surprising.

The change was made due to customer complaints regarding the use of packaging that was not “eco-friendly.” For those unaware of this particular issue, plastic is arguably more environmentally conscious packaging given the cost (externalities) of both production and decomposition of paper materials. Does this seem counter-intuitive? Well it is. As with most topics of science and our understanding of the world, the truth is non-intuitive. And if you don’t believe me (and you shouldn’t by default), read these sources here and here.

Living in the Bay for two years, this is the kind of low-level understanding of these issues that I have come to expect. Everyone wants to be an eco-warrior without putting in the work to understand the nuance of the underlying science. People are biased towards cognitive shortcuts like “plastic is bad” rather than considering the totality of production, use, re-use, and decomposition of materials. In this case, these changes could actually have the opposite effect of what the customers claim to care about.

I say all this not as environmental scientist (which I definitely am not) but as someone who is aware of the limits of my understanding. I certainly do not comprehend all the costs and benefits of every type of material but I do understand that it is not my job to run around from shop to shop chastising owners for their choice in packaging. I care for the environment and I am willing to speak up for causes that I believe in. That said, I make those choices very carefully and only after I have done the work required to hold a strong opinion. I just wish that more people took the same approach.