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.

Sonic sign

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.)

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.


Donna.  Enjoyed.  Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.
Will be in God’s country net week…..  hope all is well at Chigger Lake…..Anymore probs with Sonic call Troy Jr.  He’s in OKC.  Good buddy of mine !        ..eddie

2011-11-1 by SoCal Eddie

Donna and the Environment 1, Sonic 0.  Love it! Thank you for your work on behalf of the world.

2011-11-1 by Judy Sing

One of the venues for eating lunch here at our retirement community is the Coffee Shop where a good hot entree is served buffet style. Each day is a different menu… meatloaf, baked tilapia, Italian or Mexican, for example. Hot veggies, salad with all the fixin’s and dessert are included. To eat this wonderful meal one is given a Styrofoam plate, plastic cutlery and a Styrofoam cup for the coffee or iced tea.

Mike and I bring our own tableware to the Coffee Shop. At first our table mates would comment on the pretty colors in our melamine plates, but now after two years no one says anything and, unfortunately, neither has anyone sought to follow our example.

2011-11-1 by Priscilla

Things that come to mind:
  How are styrofoam containers used for food sanitized?  Who sanitizes them?  Where is the sanitization done?  Does the ambient air de-sanitize them after the packaging is opened?

  Hot liquids especially, but any hot food starts the chemical decomposition of styrofoam immediately releasing styrene and benzene into whatever you consume.  Those two chemicals are toxic.

2011-11-1 by Doyal

Dear Friend Darlene wrote this from Ojai, California.

“yeah—we don’t those here—starbucks/coffee tea and bean leaf gives a discount when bringing in your own cup—you know they sell cups for hot and cold drinks- and recyclable straws—there you go

damn I am tired of trash!!!!!!!!!”

2011-11-1 by donna

Great article!  I do not buy “to go” drinks, so I do not have a travel mug, but I do sometimes take left-over food home.  Thinking similar thoughts about styrofoam take-home boxes and the environment, I bought a plastic “covered plate” by Rubbermaid, complete with dividers to keep foods separate.  Works great, and so far I’ve heard no complaints.

2011-11-1 by Rosalyn

Um, for what it’s worth, I drove to Boulder, CO yesterday to turn in my ballot and stopped at Whole Foods before returning to Cheyenne. I asked a young clerk where the Oreo cookies and Twinkies were stocked and was told, with a smile, that Whole Foods doesn’t carry them.

Next time I’ll ask about styrofoam cups…

2011-11-1 by Stan

And a plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Very cool replacements for disposable cups, bottles, bags, takeout containers, and more are available at reuseit.com.

2011-11-1 by Judy

Donna, I’m with you all the way on the styrofoam issue. I never use styrofoam cups at work. I have my own cup, and wash it out whenever it, um, seems like it needs it. Anyway, keep writing, keep fighting the good fight, and never give up, never give up, never ever give up.

2011-11-1 by Annemarie

Too bad you are full of it because all of the stores in Shawnee have women for managers that is the first mistake, second if you don’t like that you can’t use your own coffee cup your local government office called the health department is where you can complain because it there rules. Third if you need too move back to California and take your liberal views with you, if you don’t like the best country in the world try china or another real communist country and see if they will put up with your nonsense. Beglad you have a first amendment right and God bless the men and women that gave you that fought for your rights, so use them responsibly and leave the common sense people to go about their day without your boo hoo crap!

2011-11-1 by Tom

I noticed the last time I went to the local Fazoli’s franchise that they have switched over from plastic dishes and utensils to actual crockery and metal forks and knives.  Before an electronic buzzer summoned you to the counter to pick up your food in plastic plates.  Now you get cheap, but real metal utensils, and an employee carries really, really hot crockery plates and bowls to your table.  This also means they must have an employee assigned as a dishwasher.  They tried to open up a couple Sonics in Appleton and one in Oshkosh - last winter.  All three closed before spring.  It was just too cold and snowy to establish new driveins as exposed as Sonics are.

2011-11-1 by Gary Richard

Dear Tom,

I tried to email you directly but you gave a phony email address so I am sending my response to you here.

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed your comment!

Actually the Sonic I went to is in Tecumseh.  Men for managers.  All of ‘em.

And actually the Health Department didn’t say it was against health rules to fill a travel mug.  Just that the server was responsible for anything that happened.  Sorta like when they serve you in a styrofoam cup.

You exemplify a certain group of folks that just plain doesn’t tolerate anyone who is different than you.  I felt the same anger you have for me from the folks at Sonic.  Except for Brent.  He is a professional and put his best foot forward.  It is difficult feeling friendship for people who hate you because you differ from them.  But I don’t hate you.  You are not the only person I’ve run into here in Oklahoma who feels the way you do.  All I can say is that I am an American, too, and you, dear boy, have insulted a fellow American.

Another thought:  if the United States is the best country in the world, why does it have California in it?

I think we have a lot to learn from each other.  Don’t you?

Yer fellow Oklahoman,


2011-11-2 by donna

I have two words for Tom:  Amory Lovins.  Tommy boy, you should google that name.  Read up.  Amory is a genius who founded the Rocky Mountain Institute and here’s what Amory has proven time and time again, so listen up Tom, it’s really simple and very, very American: Waste is an ASSET.  It’s worth money.  All you need to do to change the world for the better AND make money (how American is that?) is to put the proper price/value on “waste.”

If styrofoam were priced correctly, Sonic would have stopped using the stuff years ago.  Too costly. Or would have figured out a way to recycle it all and so reclaim what is now a valuable resource. Ditto with everything we use.  Take every component of what we make and use and price it properly and businesses quickly learn how to reclaim that now-valuable “resource.”
Think, Tom, think.  A government “tax” on Styrofoam that works out to $1 a cup.  You think Sonic would continue buying dollar-a-pop cups?  Or allow a single one to end up in the trash, especially when they could get money back for recycling them?  Like aluminum soda cans? 

That’s why Amory is paid very, very good money by very, very smart businessmen to show them how to re-think their “waste"and turn it into money.  Green pays off. Sonic should give Amory a call.

2011-11-2 by Ann Calhoun

Who the heck is Tom and how did he get on here? 

Donna, you woke me up to the evils of styrofoam.  I still don’t always do the right thing about it but, at least, now I’ve been “educated” by you.  Thanks.  Your activism inspires me.

Loved your response to Tom.

2011-11-2 by Vicki Edgin

What an experience dealing with a System that is committed to profit but has no commitment to stewardship of the earth. Thanks for taking a stand for the planet and the legacy of future generations, Hermana.

2011-11-3 by Father Clark Shackelford

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