The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 21, 2011

How To Request No Plastic and Get What You Ask For

Let’s make a list…

A common rant throughout the Show Your Plastic Trash Challenge is frustration over how to get restaurant servers or store clerks or delivery people to hear our requests for no plastic straw or cup or utensils or containers or bags or whatever and to actually honor our wishes.  Several people are irritated to receive plastic packaging or utensils even after they clearly request not to have them.

Challenge participants have left ideas and suggestions for each other in the comments.  Here are just a few.  Let’s try to come up with more.

Marissa: Show a picture. I ask servers “Do you know how much plastic you use in a week?” Then I follow it up with, “I do and it doesn’t make me happy to know I’m contributing to this…” Then I pull out a cut out picture I found in a magazine of a sea bird with nothing but plastic in his belly!  Yes, this may seem extreme but it’s worked many times. People never forget me either. And I once had a server tell me, weeks later after I should him my picture, that he is starting a “Plastic Free” Student Club at the local University….and he decided after 3 years of being undecided that he wants to study marine biology after researching the plastic in our oceans!!! It was the happiest day ever, next to getting married of course!!!

I love Marissa’s idea, and I’ve already uploaded photos of a dead albatross, several plastic-strewn beaches, and a sea turtle eating plastic to my phone to use as an illustration of exactly why I don’t want that plastic bag or container.   It’ll be interesting to see what reactions I get.

Photo of dead albatross chick with plastic trash in my mobile phone

Kay Pere:  Speak to Managers. Over the past year, I’ve been trying to make it a habit to say “no straw” when ordering a beverage and “no disposable plastic” when ordering a meal with varying success….

I have, on occasion, asked to speak with a manager about plastic items that appeared with my meal after my request was forgotten or ignored…. I did this in a way that was understanding of their workload, with an understanding that they really are interested in knowing how best to serve the needs of their customers.

Many restaurant managers and servers are acutely aware of the amount of waste that goes on in they’re business, and they hate it…. By talking with a manager, he or she then has an opportunity to make suggestions up the corporate food chain that can reduce wastefulness while making things better environmentally.

Danielle:  Repeat your request several times. Now what we do is when we order our drinks we start off with the statement, “All regular glasses. No kids cups. No disposable cups. No straws, please.” Then when the last person has ordered their drink we reiterate “No kids cups. No straws.” Whenever we get weird looks about our kids having regular glasses, we explain to our server that “we don’t use kids cups or straws at home… they’ll be fine… thank you” :) I love when we get servers that say, “AWESOME” because then I know they get it :) AND… in the event that we get a server who just doesn’t listen and brings our kids drinks in kids cups (this doesn’t happen anymore)… we send the drinks back. If they have to make drinks 2x… they’ll learn to get it right.

Take out containers: I think that it’s best to put your leftovers in the container yourself. Last week, I took my kids out to dinner and ordered my husband food to take home to him (he was sick). I let the server bring me the food (like I was going to eat it at the restaurant) and then put it in my own container. Did I get a strange look? Absolutely. But I don’t care :)

Also, as you do this more… you’ll find that it becomes easier. People will start to recognize you and know your requests. (When we went to dinner the other night, the manager of the restaurant told his staff “No plastic on their table.” haha… loved it!!)

Beth: Demonstrate alternatives. I find that the best way to ask for no straw is to pull out my glass straw and show it to the server as I’m making my request. Or show them my reusable utensils or bag or whatever. I think showing them physical items breaks them out of auto-pilot mode and helps them remember. Usually.

Lisa:  Leave a card. Lisa from Take Out Without has spearheaded a campaign to urge restaurant goers to take home less waste.  She’s created downloadable wallet cards to hand out at restaurants offering strategies for reducing their packaging waste.  It can also serve as talking points for your discussions with store managers and staff.

What successful strategies have you used to get your point across in stores and restaurants and leave without any plastic waste?

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11 years ago

I work at the Oakland Zoo and while I am proud to say that our zoo does not allow guests to bring plastic drink-lids and straws (they are the most common trash item that we have to fish out of our animal’s exhibits) into our zoo, our food court still provides only plastic cutlery, our kids-meals come with plastic toys in plastic wrap, we have plastic cup/water cooler combos in our offices, our gift shop sells tons of plastic toys and gifts, and our marketing department often collaborates with companies that are less than environmentally conscious. In such a big, bureaucratic organization, it’s hard to make changes. Even at a place that purports to be conservation and education minded.

11 years ago

I asked our local Sierra Club if they would consider not offering plastic cups, plates and utensils at the annual Christmas potluck and instead publishing a reminder in the newsletter and in emails that people should bring their own service. Then we could have a few paper plates and cups and a few washable utensils in case people forgot. They basically gave me the brushoff and said plastic was easier and it would be discriminating against people who rode their bikes to the potluck to make them bring their own table service and a whole laundry list of excuses. I’ve given up with trying to get others to do anything too complicated. Not even environmental organizations care.

11 years ago

@juna the problems posed by making ‘the right choice’ are multi-layered and I think often of the ripple effect that you mention.

The main thing is that we should all try to our bit, I think, while recognising that other people have other priorities.

For example, my housemates choose not recycle even though I have offered to take anything to the recycling point for them. One said he didn’t know how!

I wasn’t gonna teach him. Surely everyone knows you can recycle newspapers…

Anyway, I think him saying he didn’t know how to do it was equivalent to him saying he couldn’t be bothered. Although I don’t understand it I would rather not get stressed about it. I offered help and it was rejected.

Getting annoyed at people working in shops or restaurants might not help either as they are just there to do their work and get paid.

People who are concerned by these issues should avoid shopping at places which use plastic packaging etc as this is the only way to have your conscience avoid the plastic waste issue

11 years ago

Joddle… I agree. I would feel very badly about wasting the food so my conscious was clear about not using plastic. And I would also have felt badly about the ripple affect of my actions, because I even feel bad right now to hear that the kitchen help was yelled at. Hopefully he didn’t lose his job, we all need one. The wasted food and perhaps the gasoline used to return it… unless on foot, is not worth the “environmental reasons.”

11 years ago

– rebeca

Your experience ordering food out is exactly the kind of uncomfortable
situation I wish to avoid. I would have felt awkward, and felt bad
about the wasted food.

Living in London, England, it is possible to avoid restaurants which
use excess or plastic waste packaging for convenience food in my

One thing I haven’t been able to avoid successfully, however, is the
plastic waste generated at events I attend. Even if I don’t eat the
catered food, I feel that my presence is contributing to the plastic
having been bought in the first place, and later wasted (as food is
ordered per person)

11 years ago

I love this! I work in a grocery store and I cringe whenever I have to ask “paper or plastic” but at our grocery store, we have a rewards card that accumulates to $5 then you get that $5 off your next grocery bill, and if you bring in your own bags to reuse you get 5 cents for each bag! I love it!

11 years ago

Ok, I’ll admit to being a doofus. I just read your plastic-free guide and it was VERY helpful answering my questions. Thanks!!!!! LOL

11 years ago

Ok, I’m new to all of this so…couple of questions I have are: Where can I purchase glass straws? What types of containers do you take into restaurants to wrap up your leftovers? What do you do in supermarkets with the plastic that is on meats or bags of potatoes (although I have a nice market to shop in that I could use my own bags but sometimes do shop at the store)? How can I encourage my place of employment to recycle? I notice we throw a lot of things away and I normally take it home to recycle but it would be nice if we participated as a business. Thanks! P.S. Beth, I am a friend of Ellen’s (love her)! :)

11 years ago

I just want to start out by saying that I DO really enthusiastically support (and go along with) what all of you are doing.

However, if you care about the environment and other issues (which you all obviously do), maybe you should think twice about going to restaurants so much in the first place. Usually the food has traveled wayy too far (travel=gasoline), is probably loaded with pesticides and other nasty chemicals, and was probably grown with not-so-environmentally friendly practices. Take a look at Michael Pollan’s often cited book Omnivores Dillemma, or just do a search for “sustainable community agriculture.”

So I guess what I am trying to say is maybe choose restraints who have the same ideals as you do, or just avoid them as much as possible.

11 years ago

Just be polite

Nicolas Camille
11 years ago

I like your initiatives very much.
But I think we can all do better than with a straw, even when it is a first step!

I saw some time ago a Powerpoint with the problem of plastic bottles in the ocean.
And I decided at that time to make myself a little step in the right direction.

I bought a thermos for myseld and I take it now all day with me to my work, filled with natural water, what I have at home.
Before this change, I had every day a plastic water bootle with me.
By this change I have water, have a greener attitude and I have not to pay every 6 days for 6 plastic bottles (1,5 liter per bottle).

That’s why I suggest to all of you to try to do this the same way.
It is only a small step for everyone, but it will be a great step when we all will do it!

11 years ago

Am I the only one who thinks that showing pictures of dead animals to an unsuspecting waitress borders on abuse? People have different levels of tolerance for such graphic images. I agree that asking for no plastic is a good waste reduction strategy, but confronting someone with disturbing images during the middle of their workday is over-the-top.

Amy Korst
11 years ago

If I’m feeling annoyed or like I don’t want to deal with “the look,” or I’m somewhere I’ve never been and likely won’t return to, I tell people I’m allergic to plastic and leave it at that. People are more respectful of health concerns than they are of ethical concerns.

I also make sure to fill out a comment card whenever I see one. I figure that managers/owners have more time to read comment cards than they do to listen to me during a busy serving time. I always tip higher for a server who remembers my request, and I tell them why I’m tipping higher, too.

11 years ago

Ugh! My husband and I had the most frustrating experience the other day trying to order subs just in the wrapper w/o the usual accompanying (and TOTALLY redundant/unnecessary) styrofoam box. We ordered over the phone, when we got there, the girl that we had spoken to check and said “you’re the ones w/o styrofoam right?” We confirmed that and heard her go back to the kitchen and tell them to only wrap the sub, not put it in the box. When our order came (in an unnecessary paper bag) it seemed large, but we had gone over it all so we just took it and left because we were starving. We got home and sure enough, not only was our order in two styrofoam boxes, but it wasn’t what we wanted. Instead of subs, we had wraps! So we called, the girl said they misunderstood her in the kitchen, I heard her tell her manager some story about how we were allergic to styrofoam and couldn’t eat the food now, we had to bring the food back in and they would replace it. So (really starving by now and 1 hr after we expected to have eaten) we went back, re-explained what we wanted and why we didn’t want the styrofoam and how we wanted subs not wraps. We waited for our order which took extra long because the guy in the kitchen still misunderstood and made wraps instead of just wrapping the subs in paper, heard the manager yell at the guy, who was simply not undersanding what was being explained to him, and then asked if we wanted to the wrapped subs in a plastic bag. I said “NO!, the point is to avoid plastics. We’re not allergic to it. We are doing this for environmental reasons, and we don’t need a paper bag either. Just the subs. Thank you.” Anyway, I think they know us there now and it shouldn’t happen again, but, OY!

The main point being, if you go somewhere where the staff are not native English speakers, remember to be extra careful explaining what you want and don’t want and why.

Cat C-B
11 years ago

One strategy: be a regular customer at a local business. And in the case of a restaurant, be effusive in thanks when they get it right, and leave a big tip.

It’s easier for people to remember what we want when they remember us–and it’s been my experience that waiting until I’m asked about avoiding plastic to explain has resulted in that point of view being heard and appreciated.

Mike Lieberman
11 years ago

I’ve found this one to be such a challenge. I often repeat myself multiple times or will kindly not accept the disposables, but sometimes they just put it down anyways. Need to come up with a better plan. Some great ideas here.

11 years ago

I think most servers aren’t being rude, they’ve just so many things on their minds, they can’t listen. Ordering no whipped cream is likely just as problematic as asking for no plastic. So I love the idea to SHOW the server your glass straw. Gotta get me one of those. thx!

Jackie Boykin
11 years ago

It’s a challenge with servers, what I’ve found works for me now is to reach up and touch them on the arm lightly as they are writing and say, “i know this may sound odd, but it’s very important to me not to use no straw and a glass not plastic cup.” It really works if you’re kind with the words and really make an effort for the connection. I’m almost always asked why now, and they I explain breifly. It’s worked. I’m in Florida and I just whip out hte canvas bags pretty quick even at the mall…and most clerks now say, o good for you.

Fonda LaShay
11 years ago

Great tips… I was watching ‘Recipes for Disaster’ this weekend… its a great docuumentary where a family goes on a oil diet in Finland. ( )

They main person, the dad, in the documentary at on point said to the meat counter he was allergic.. haha.. he later said it was the only way people would not argue with him.. I think it is a good back up plan if noting else works. :)

11 years ago

On Sunday, we went out to breakfast for the first time since December. When I was placing our drink order… I started to say my usual, “No kids cups…” and the waitress touched my shoulder and said “no straws… they pollute our beaches.”

The last time I saw this waitress was back at the beginning of December (that was the first time ever) and I went through my normal routine (see my above suggestion) and she listened to my requests and followed through. ….but what happened (in December) was when I was paying… she told me that she was so impressed that my kids were able to drink without kids cups or straws…and don’t complain to get them AND was curious how I did it. I told her about how we do beach clean ups and straws are one of the most littered items…. I went on to share with her about our beach clean ups (what we find and why we do it)… and I’m so happy I did because she obviously was listening. Love that she remembered us and our reasons for avoiding plastics.

Also, another tip… not so much for requesting no plastics… but for planning ahead. We often go to places that have the little individual jellies/jams… I’ve gotten to where– if I know we’re going– I grab my own jar of jam and take it with me. It’s a lot easier, less waste, and I don’t have to ask for the “flavor” of jam/jelly that I prefer. :)

Betsy (Eco-novice)
11 years ago

I used to wait tables, and I can definitely understand why it would be hard to get people to honor your request. Those servers are juggling a lot of mental material at once. These strategies sound effective. I agree that saying that you are on a “plastic diet” (as mentioned in the comments above) or that you are “allergic to plastic” might work. Servers are used to dealing with special dietary needs, and this might trigger their attention. Be sure to tip extra if the server gets it right. Then they’ll REALLY remember to honor your request next time they see you. And be nice. Waiting tables is a pretty lame job.

Lori Popkewitz Alper
11 years ago

I usually pull out my reusables at the grocery store and start to bag my own food. If I am at any other type of store I politely let the cashier know that I have my own bags. Refusing straws is still a work-in-progress. My kids love them and ask for them-so we have some work to do!

Carmen Melton
11 years ago

I love the idea of having a photo handy – in fact I’m also planning on putting together a 3-ring binder full of facts, statistics and photos, in addition to tips and ideas for how to avoid contributing to the mess. I’m going to give a copy to my kids’ school to put in their lobby for visitors to look through. I’ll be relying on and giving credit to my hero Beth Terry of course! Thanks for all the fantastic input from all!

11 years ago

I normally have to ask for something like that more than once. I find that “servers” tend to not even listen when you have a request like that.

11 years ago

I find that it helps to observe whenever possible and politely remind them when they slip back into their plastic-wasting habits. I’ve worked enough crappy jobs to know that opening up a new plastic bag or putting a plastic straw in a beverage just becomes second nature, and even if you know that the customer wants something else, you sometimes do what comes natural without thinking about it. So please be nice. Let them know that you’re aware that you’re asking for them for extra work, and thank them excessively for it. You do not want to be the militant hippie who chews out employees, and you’ll make us all look bad by association.

But usually, at the grocery store, I use the self-checkout and skip the employees altogether. I have my bags ready immediately at other stores. I don’t eat out very often, but I try to remember to bring my own leftover containers when it is an option. I fail at takeout, though. I try to stay away from the places that give out styrofoam, or I ask for a more recyclable/biodegradable container if it is an option, but I haven’t been able to form a good habit because I don’t usually plan ahead to go out to eat and I don’t do it often. I’ve been pretty good at avoiding the plastic silverware just by asking, though, and I rarely order drinks so straws aren’t much of an issue.

11 years ago

At the grocery store I put my bags on the belt before my food, so the bags are the first thing they see. I tell the bag boy, “no plastic bags, please,” and I smile and make eye contact. I go to the same couple stores, and the meat, seafood and deli clerks know me now and expect me to hand them containers for my food. If anyone asks, I just say that I am trying to get away from using disposable plastic. If they want to hear more I am happy to expound upon that, but that’s enough information for most people. Overall this has been well-received once people understand what I am doing.

OMG Kids
11 years ago

OMG was invited to be a guest speaker at the Atlanta Chapter of the SurfRider Foundation a few weeks ago. When I arrived, the bar was stocked with plastic cups for all the beverages. As I order my water, I specifically asked to be served in a glass. I was advised by the young lady that the glasses were reserved for patrons ordering wine and that all other beverages were dispensed in plastic cups.

I asked her if she knew the impact plastic had on our environment to which she replied no. I told her that I was merely trying to make a difference and that she had the same opportunity by only using the gasses to serve all drinks. Obviously frustrated with my boring conversation, she said she would try to find a glass for my water. Several minutes later she arrived with my water in a plastic cup. When I reminded her of my request, she started on about not being allowed to serve water in a wine glass, at which point I asked to speak to the manager. The server quickly dumped my water into the sink and poured me another but this time in a wine glass.

The folks from SurfRider were also frustrated that plastic was the container of choice by this establishment. My recommendation is to call ahead and attempt to have the conversation with the manager and or owner and see if you can get someone who might be a little more compassionate to the situation.

BTW, tomorrow marks the official launching of our “Say No To Plastic Bags” coalition in the Atlanta GA market and we welcome all organizations interested in helping us make Atlanta and its surrounding communities one of the first in the state to enact a Plastic Bag Fee program. You can learn more at

11 years ago

After using each of the above strategies before, I find the approach that works the best is a combination of: choosing a place where you can see them preparing the food nearby so you can “yell” over at them in a nice way to remind them if you see them reaching for a straw or plastic; then showing staff that you brought your own definitely makes them understand what you are trying to achieve; and finally -go at a time when the restaurant is not too busy- the busier they are, the more they are in “speedy mode” and tend to streamline all their orders and not remember individual requests. Hope this helps- there are alternatives to plastic! We have discovered them, now lets USE them :D Good luck everyone!

Sharyn Dimmick
11 years ago

At the grocery store, I get out my bags and put them at the end of the check stand before I unload any groceries. I say to the checker, “We’ve brought our own bags.” We also tell checkers that we don’t need things with handles put in bags — no need to put detergent or milk jugs into bags, or giant sacks of potatoes either. In some stores, like Grocery Outlet, we pack our own bags to make sure we don’t get plastic and that the frozen items and dairy items are packed together, for example.

11 years ago

Be polite & understanding.

Amanda A.
11 years ago

I like to explain that I’m on a “plastic diet.” So, when I ask for my glass of water I say “No straw, please. I’m on a plastic diet.” A big smile and a quirky explanation have avoided many straws for me.

11 years ago

i usually start with “i’m one of those recycling freaks” so that i don’t sound like a snob by asking them to do something that they didn’t think of themselves – like offer me to opt out of a plastic bag to carry a single item. duh?