Every weekday, shortly after 11 a.m., a line forms at the Broadway and 38th Street location of Sweetgreen, the eco-conscious salad chain. By noon, the line has usually tripled in size. It often takes more than 15 minutes to get to the front.
The scene is similar at the Chop’t at 41st and Broadway, or the Dig Inn on West 38th, or the Just Salad one block south. In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the evidence is hard to dismiss: Greens, once so unappetizing that parents all over the country had to beg and bribe their children to eat them, have never been hotter. (Almost as hot: their denser, younger cousin, grains.)
At Sweetgreen, the appeal is partly ethical. The ingredients are sustainably farmed, sourced from trusted partners and served with transparency. There are vegan, gluten-free and “warm bowl” options. There are raw beets and organic carrots. There is local feta. It’s enough to make the most wasteful among us feel good about consumerism. Is it any wonder that according to market research provided by Technomic, Sweetgreen is the fastest growing salad chain in the United States?
The moral overtones extend even to the trash. As customers pay and head back toward their various workplaces, they pass an oft-overflowing garbage bin with a proud sign above it that says that all of the company’s utensils, napkins, bowls and cups are plant-based, “which means they go in the compost bin, along with any leftover food.”
“Nothing from inside Sweetgreen goes to the landfill,” the sign declares further, virtuously.
But that’s far from the truth, though it’s not the chain’s fault.
Matt Holtz, a salesman at Microsoft, is “addicted” to Sweetgreen, according to his co-worker, Michelle Munden, and goes almost every day. Mr. Holtz does not compost his disposable bowl once he is done eating, he said, though he “will compost if the opportunity is available.”
Zara Watson, a lawyer who eats at Sweetgreen three times a week, throws the waste from her healthful lunch directly in the trash because she does not have composting at her office. So does Sam Hockley, the managing director at the software company Meltwater, who is willing to eat a Sweetgreen bowl for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Even Scott Rogowsky, the host of HQ Trivia who last year put his continued employment in jeopardy when he expressed his preference for Sweetgreen, is unable to dispose of his salads responsibly at work, because composting is unavailable at the WeWork location where the trivia app is based.
Indeed, zero customers interviewed at Sweetgreen over several days said that they composted their bowls at their offices.
All Kale Breaking Loose
Salad is appealing not only because the food is healthy for us but because it’s healthy for the world — a direct retort to the obviously very bad Styrofoam Filet-o-Fish containers that blighted many customers’ youth.
But even as Sweetgreen and its wholesome brethren flourish, the compostable containers the chain puts such care into providing are, more often than not, going to a landfill. Picture the average salad obsessive: someone who eats right, exercises regularly, practices “self-care” … and throws his or her compostable waste, whether with guilt or casual oblivion, straight in the trash.
Amber Jimenez, a fashion designer in line at Sweetgreen one day, said that she was new to what she called “Sweetgreen Culture,” to the point that she had made the mistake of standing in the line several times. That day, she had ordered online for the first time — when you do so, you can grab your pre-arranged salad straight from a shelf — and talked while waiting for her selection to arrive.
“I always see it, everyone’s coming here,” she said. “It’s the salad destination. The typical design lunch. You’re just eating kale. But it’s really good!”
Was she worried about the waste created by her food? “I think about it like, I think about straws and stuff, but I don’t think about it enough,” she said.
It’s tempting to blame Sweetgreen for salad bowl waste. But the chain, perhaps more “woke” than those it feeds, takes compostable material very seriously. One of its founders, Nicolas Jammet, said in an interview that the packaging material was an ethical obligation: “Because its part of our ethos,” he said, “we don’t have a choice not to use it.” The manufacturer that provides its packaging has been certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (meaning that it is actually compostable, unlike some products that advertise themselves as such).
But the healthy choice represented by a lunch at Sweetgreen, or at other healthy salad chains, is circumscribed by a punishing workweek and the city’s waste disposal system.
Sweetgreen’s sales in 2017 grew 44.4 percent from 2016, faster than competitors like Chop’t and Tender Greens, and it expanded to 92 locations, from 81 the previous year. It has thrived on an office culture in which antiquated things like “cafeterias” and “lunch hours” are increasingly falling out of fashion.
June Jo Lee, a food ethnographer who has traveled the country interviewing people about the way they eat, said that the working world had become so fast-paced, and involved so much complex collaboration, that people were eliminating their lunch hours, not only in the United States but increasingly, overseas.
“I remember seven years ago doing an interview with someone in Mexico City and they were saying the same thing,” she said. “There are all these people waiting behind his chair for his job and he can’t take a traditional lunch hour.”
Salad chains like Sweetgreen, Ms. Lee said, fit into that culture perfectly. Online ordering makes it a perfectly efficient lunch choice and the options available don’t weigh its customers down like a burger would, allowing them to Just Keep Working.
“That’s why I think Sweetgreen is taking off,” she said. “People don’t want to feel heavy because they want to feel productive.”
The trash cans, however, are getting very heavy indeed. Robert Buffolino, the general manager of American Recycling Management in Jamaica, Queens, said that it would be difficult to evaluate systematically whether the number of salad bowls in garbage cans had actually increased.
But if you were asking him anecdotally? “Yeah, sure, there’s been an increase. Just by sight and sound, sure.”
Moreover, “most waste occurs at the consumer level,” said Marc Bellemare, who directs the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Restaurants and grocery stores don’t waste as much as consumers do.” He added, “most of what gets wasted is not frozen pizza, it’s not ice cream, it’s produce, it’s stuff that goes in salad. I suspect that the rise of those restaurants, my intuition is that those will mean the rise of food waste as well, because they sell this stuff to consumers, where the bulk of the losses tend to occur.”
Of course, one could also intuit that the rise of the chains cuts down on food waste, because the vegetables are coming pre-apportioned rather than piling up in bulk at home. But the container problem remains.
Sweetgreen’s most serious competitors — Chop’t, Tender Greens and Saladworks — are still wedded to recyclable materials, though Chop’t uses compostable fiber for its grain bowls. Another competitor, Just Salad, has more than 20 locations in New York and distributes reusable, washable plastic bowls to consumers. According to its director of marketing, Stephen Swartz, about a quarter of its customers use those bowls when they eat at the chain.
“Just Salad’s reusable bowl program saves over 75,000 lbs. of plastic every year,” he said in an email. “As we like to say, ‘every bowl fulfills a goal.’”
Dan Robbins, the director of purchasing at Tender Greens, said that the chain did not plan to move away from recyclable to-go containers “until composting infrastructure is in place.”
In New York, despite a major effort by the city government over the past several years, that infrastructure is still being built. It is particularly difficult to compost from one’s office, unless you work in a small business that makes a special push to do so. The city started collecting food waste five years ago, and only in the past two years has it begun to require some 2,100 of the city’s more than 200,000 businesses to separate organic waste to be composted.
This is complicated by the fact that in New York, commercial waste is not carted away by the city but by private companies, some of which offer composting options and some of which do not. (The New York Times building composts waste from its cafeteria but sends the remainder of its trash to a landfill, according to the building’s facilities department.)
Eric Goldstein, the New York City environment director at the National Resource Defense Council said that it typically takes a city about a decade to transition to successful composting and that New York faces several challenges, one of which is simply educating people on how to compost in the first place.
“If you were to stop a person in the street, I don’t know how many people could even tell you what composting really is,” he said. “We need a large-scale program to let New Yorkers know why this is important and how to participate in the program.”
And of course, Mr. Goldstein said, composting itself is not the gold standard of eco-conscious lunch disposal.
“It’s still best to use reusable things, even before composting and recycling,” he said. “But composting is an extremely valuable thing to do.”
Consumers do not like to feel wasteful, and experts say that, if educated, they might change their ways.
“People have this really gut negative reaction to seeing packaging waste,” said Ms. Lee, who sympathizes with their lack of options. “There’s guilt about what they’re doing but it’s also really inconvenient because it piles up.”
The comments of Ms. Jimenez, the fashion designer who had recently started ordering ahead and skipping the wait at Sweetgreen, reflected that guilt. She said that she had even thought of putting together a petition to some of her favorite chains to ask that they address the issue.
“I’m like, ‘ugh so much waste’ and why can’t there be a less wasteful way of doing it?” she said, sounding pained. “Why can’t we focus on that as a priority?”