Microsustainability: Tangling with the Sonic Drive-In
by Donna Schoenkopf
It all began on a Friday—October 14th to be exact. It was one of those beautiful, perfect days, all blue sky, fluffy white clouds, a lovely late afternoon temperature of 78 degrees. It was almost enough to make one forget the record high heat and drought that had been scorching Oklahoma since July.
I was on my way to “Occupy Shawnee.” I decided to stop by the Sonic Drive-In to get some coffee in my travel mug to give me a little pick-me-up after a couple of hours of working in the yard. Since it was only a coffee order, I decided to use the drive up window.
I stopped at the speaker thingy and a young woman’s voice came through the speaker, asking for my order.
“I’d like a coffee with milk and sugar and I’m using my own travel mug, so no cup, please.”
There was a pause. Then she asked me to repeat my order. I did. She told me it would be $1.59 at the window and I drove forward and stopped.
There she stood. She held a Styrofoam cup in her hand and repeated how much it was.
“Oh, I didn’t want the Styrofoam cup,” I said. “I just wanted my travel mug filled.” I assumed she had just misunderstood me.
She seemed really flustered. No, not flustered. Mad. It seemed as though she were mad at me. She was probably thinking that I was some kind of bleeding heart environmentalist (I am) and therefore a communist* (I am). And that meant I was going to Hell (I’m not). Here in Oklahoma environmentalists are severely outnumbered and looked down on and under suspicion.
*I am not a Stalinist, Russian Communist wanting to overthrow the United States of America. I love America. Rather, I am a communist with a small “c.” I am a communist as in communitarian, community, communication, communion, commune, workers-should-own-the-business-they-work-for because the inequality of wealth is an outcome of capitalism’s competition which results in giant corporations with too much power, kind of communist. Okay? Are we straight on this? Good.
She told me (heatedly) that Sonic’s policy was to refuse to fill travel mugs. Because they were unsanitary. People might lick their mugs. Or words to that effect.
Several things went through my mind. Unsanitary?!? I suppose all that cash the carhops handle is sanitary? And they take that cash INTO THE KITCHEN WHERE THE COOKING IS BEING DONE in order to put it into the cash register. What if the cooks/carhops had a contagious disease? And I’m positive many of them have had some kind of bug while serving customers. It’s impossible that they haven’t been sick at some point.
Then I thought of the thousands of Styrofoam cups that they have stacked in the kitchen and pass out to every customer, the same Styrofoam cups that have a half-life of 500 years and it takes another couple thousand years for the damn things to totally biodegrade, all the while emitting 90+ toxins.
Then my brain synapses hooked onto a science fiction story that I read long, long ago about the fear of germs from fellow human beings. The story was set in the Future, of course. People in that society had become totally hermetically sealed against all other human beings because of the fear of contamination. Their social life consisted of visiting each other through holograms. They were completely cut off from physical human contact, with one exception—doctors. And then I thought of all the disposable plates and cups we use in order to be “sanitary” and how we are being buried in waste. And how people pick the Styrofoam cup on the brunch table instead of the china cup because it’s “cleaner.” We no longer trust dishwashing. It’s not “clean” enough.
I asked if I could speak to the manager
“No, he’s with his children because he’s on his way to Iraq.”
I do not know what made me do this, but I did it. I said the worst possible thing you can say at this time in this culture. But I meant it. And I still do. And I’m not apologizing.
This is what I said: “Well, Styrofoam is as dangerous to the planet as going to Iraq is.”
(Hate me. Do with me what you will. But the reason I said what I said to that poor girl is because practically no one takes the threat of Styrofoam to our planet seriously. I see senators and congressmen and women drinking from Styrofoam cups. I see Styrofoam at every place of business that sells food. I see stacks of it at the grocery store with the picnic supplies. It has become a scourge to our world. I half jokingly call myself the Syrofoam Cop, risking friendships, getting into little spats in the brunch line, having people regard me with disdain because I must be crazy to be so rude as to complain about something that is so ubiquitous. I have been doing this for over 20 years now. I have become an irascible, cranky old woman about the whole subject.)
I continued, “Styrofoam has a half life of 500 years. When it is burned, it off-gases over 90 toxic substances. When it is produced in the factory it is poisoning the people who make it.”
I could see her eyes glaze over with what I was saying. Sometimes I feel like the crazy old coot with the long, white beard standing on the corner with a big sign that says, “The End of the World is Near!” And I could tell the girl in the window thought so, too.
Then I thought of ancient Rome and its widespread use of lead. It was used in water pipes, paint, cups, toys, statues, cosmetics, coffins, roofs, and (most importantly) wine.
The Romans found that if sapa, a grape concentrate that was boiled in lead pots, was added to wine the wine didn’t spoil and it tasted great. It was used as a food preservative, too. At the height of the Roman Empire it finally became acceptable for wives to drink wine and that’s when the birth rate declined and fewer babies survived. We all know of the effects of lead on childhood development and learning disabilies. Some say that lead was the reason for the Fall of Rome.
So I said,“Could I speak to the assistant manager?”
“No. He’s at the bank.”
I was getting nowhere fast. I was also getting close to being late for “Occupy Shawnee.” So I told her I didn’t want the coffee and that I would be back later to talk to the assistant manager. I drove off. And I knew I was not going to let this go.
After my stint on the street with my “I Am The 99%” sign, I returned to the Sonic Drive-In. I parked my car, got out, and tapped on the glass door of the kitchen/ordering/storage/cash register room. A couple of the people inside looked up in surprise. No one ever knocked on the door.
A pleasant, blonde young woman came out with a smile on her face. I asked if she was aware of my complaint. She smiled a little smile and confessed she had. She very sweetly explained Sonic’s policy of hygiene which included throwing away all food that had been accidentally sent to the wrong customer even though the customer hadn’t touched it. That was okay with me. But the Styrofoam deal wasn’t okay with me. I reiterated my concerns and asked if the assistant manager was there and, yes, he was.
Out came a short, wiry guy. An angry short, wiry guy. (Why do I assume he hates environmentalists?) He explained Sonic’s policy. I made my point about Styrofoam. (And also pointed out that there was nothing on the menu that was healthy, if health was the point of their no-fill-travel-mug rule.)
There was a bit of back and forth and I pointed out that he seemed really angry. He backed up a bit. No, no. He wasn’t angry. It’s just that he has to deal with people. . . .
I suddenly felt sorry for him. He told me that I’d have to talk to “corporate” and went into the kitchen/etc. to get the phone number for me, even though, he said sneeringly, the number was posted on the menu. I stopped feeling sorry for him.
While he was inside I looked at the menu. I could not find the phone number of “corporate.” At all. I even looked at the finest of fine print. Nope. Not there. When he got back outside I mentioned the fact that I couldn’t find the number. “It’s right here,” he said, and proceeded to look at the fine print, too. It was so small I needed to get right up to it to manage to read it. But no, the number wasn’t there either. It turned out to be on the other side of the menu. The other car on the other side could (barely) read it if they got out of the car and knew where to look, but not the side I was looking at.
You know, sometimes I wonder.
The assistant manager was now aware that I really was going to make a big deal out of this and his attitude changed instantly. He apologized if I had been inconvenienced. I explained it wasn’t a matter of inconvenience, but was a matter of the health of the planet.
Anyway, I got the number, got home, called the next day and got Charmaine (Charmayne? Charmane? Charmeighn?), Sonic’s customer care person.
She was nice. She laughed at my jokes. She will pass on my concerns, she said. My reference number was 1135149199. Someone will call me back, she said.
No one did. I waited for over a week.
I called back. I gave the new girl my reference number. So sorry. For sure someone will call back.
And in a couple of days someone did. It wasn’t “corporate.” It was Brent, the area manager for Sonic. He was friendly. He didn’t stop talking. He didn’t give me much of a chance to tell him about travel mugs, but when I wedged my way into the conversation he told me that he had called the Health Department who told him that if someone got sick because that person had a dirty travel mug, Sonic would be liable.
Hmmm. What? Uhhhhh.
But, he said, I could call “corporate” if I wanted to. I had been calling “Customer Concerns” which was different than “corporate.” He gave me the number.
And I called. And I got a guy who said Jason would call me back. And he did. And he told me that SONIC DID NOT HAVE A POLICY ON TRAVEL MUGS. At all. None.
So I called Brent back. And he told me that if I ever wanted my travel mug filled his store would fill it.
“What if other people want their travel mugs filled?” I asked.
“I am posting a notice in the kitchen to fill travel mugs. We will rinse the mug and fill it.”
He then told me he had two days off a week, one day for the family and one day for the Lord but otherwise he would be in the store if I wanted to say hello. And I told him that the Lord would be proud of him for being a good steward of the Earth.
He kinda sorta gave a half chuckle.
But he was not amused.
So. The next time you are going to Sonic Drive-In, be sure to bring your travel mug and ask to get it filled. It’s for a worthy cause.
(By the way, the first Sonic Drive-In was built in Shawnee, Oklahoma, founded by Troy Smith, and I used to go to it when I was in high school.)