In My Words: The Hoagie Sandwich and Me: A Meditation Upon Plastic

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor Rosemary Haskell writes about how a recent meal led to a meditation about reducing single-use plastic. The column was published by the Greensboro News & Record, the Greenville Daily Reflector, the Salisbury Post, the Rocky Mount Telegram, the Daily Advance of Elizabeth City and other media outlets.

By Rosemary Haskell

On most evenings, I reach into my local Harris Teeter deli counter’s cooler cabinet for my go-to supper item: the grocery chain’s tasty American Hoagie Sandwich, a favorite of mine that feels like a bargain at 480 calories and $5.99.

Rosemary Haskell, professor of English

Were I to make the sandwich myself, it would be cheaper and I’d get good-housekeeping points, but that’s not going to happen. The hoagie’s lettuce, tomato, cheese and sliced beef are always calling me.

But recently, I heard another call: about the threats posed to the planet and to our own health by the sea of plastic derived from fossil fuels that we’re drowning in. Plastic stays forever: It won’t biodegrade.

One day last week, instead of finding my sandwich wrapped in its usual single sheet of cling-film, I found it lying in state on a rigid oblong black plastic tray under a clear plastic rectangular lid. It had lots of clearance room and looked nice. The package reminded me of a jewelry casket, and the clear rigid plastic has an enticingly pure look to it.

But why suddenly such an elaborate container? And why all this additional plastic?

I asked three Harris Teeter staff members the reason for the change. The first told me he didn’t know why the change had occurred. The second said it was because the sandwich was now made off-site, not at the store’s own deli counter. The third employee said the store had run out of cling-film, had found these containers in stock, and would return to cling-film soon.

But cling-film is plastic, too, and not exactly welcome in rivers and streams. Is it actually a more Earth-friendly sandwich container than the generously roomy box that replaced it?

I look forward to the return of Cling-Film Hoagie soon — I think. Paper-Wrapped Hoagie sounds even better.

But I have yet another question: Why do the check-out lanes in my local Harris Teeter still feature stacks of free single-use plastic bags? Googling the topic, I found that in 2018, the “parent” Kroger Co. said it would eliminate them in its stores by 2025. Some of Kroger’s holdings have done so. However, it looks as though others may still be three years — with tons of plastic waste and who-knows-how-much petroleum production — away from that moment of blessed release.

Wegmans recently announced an end-of-2022 purge of plastic bags from its stores, which should motivate its competitors, especially in green-aware Chapel Hill, where I live. Other businesses are making progress by charging extra for such bags, by providing only paper, and by selling cheap reusable bags for purchase at the check-out. Doing God’s work, NCPIRG, the state’s public information research group, has Whole Foods in its sights, urging the company to jettison more plastic. But at least Whole Foods eliminated it from their check-out lanes as far back as 2008.

The problem of single-use plastic goes beyond the bags at the check-out, of course. The Hoagie Sandwich Box is just one manifestation. Single-use plastic packaging is everywhere. Look around a grocery store and see variations of this petroleum-based material that cocoons yogurt, milk, margarine, hand sanitizer, liquid soap, hummus, dish detergent, chopped fruit and even “fresh” vegetables.

And we shouldn’t overlook all that plastic-wrapped water. Only occasionally do I stop to think about the absurdity of reselling a commodity already paid for by our water bills, bottled in a material which will pollute our planet forever.

Recycling, which Harris Teeter promotes, is not sufficient. Markets for some recyclables are saturated, not all plastics are candidates and most of us are not perfect recyclers. And we’re not always perfect consumers: I still snapped up that elegant box-o’- sandwich. (Hey — I was hungry!)

Perhaps more importantly, this summer our hot (hot!) planet is front and center. It is, and it’s on, the front burner. Climate change cannot be ignored and we must curb more of our carboniferous actions. Petroleum-based products perpetuate fossil-fuel dependency and enlarge our carbon footprint. And because so many are single-use, we keep pumping them out.

I have some vague inkling of the narrow profit margins within which grocery stores operate. Systemic changes must be carefully scrutinized. But Kroger’s 2018 announcement signals plenty of lead time. Why must they — and we — wait until 2025 to obliterate forever the landfill fodder that we now encounter as we head for the cash register? What’s taking this huge and apparently successful operation — with Harris Teeter branches in seven South Atlantic states — so long?

We need a bold corporate move right now: Ban the bags! All grocery stores must show they care about the root causes of fire-hot summers, flooded homes and an ecosystem choking on eternal plastic. Such an action might even be good for business.

Views expressed in this column are the author’s own and not necessarily those of Elon University.