Use only what you need

That’s the advice from a beautifully-executed campaign from Denver Water , right here in my own backyard of Colorado. The campaign (created by Sukle Advertising + Design , a very smart, strategic ad agency) is simple and effective, using guerrilla marketing to hammer the message home. But it’s not just good advice for water; I think it’s a strong message for all consumers.

gv a dm

It was a moment of clarity for me when I was picking up a Red Box DVD at my local McDonald’s and saw a guy grab maybe 20 napkins and shove them into his take-out bag. I had seen the Denver Water billboard earlier that day, and the two just slammed together in my head. “Use only what you need!” I was shouting at him in my head. Of course, if I’d said that out loud I would have risked spending a few nights in traction, so I did what most of us do…I kept quiet.

20 napkins to eat a cheeseburger and fries? Did this guy have a serious eating disorder that caused him to spill most of the food from his mouth? I can’t imagine why anyone would need more than a couple of napkins (parents of young children excepted, I know what kind of a mess they can make).

So, I started looking around the rest of the fast-food eatery. People were grabbing handfuls of ketchup packets, using two or three and throwing the rest in the trash. Sodas were refilled to the top, and thrown away half full. This was all just from one McD’s.

Over the next few weeks, I saw the wasteful nature of our society everywhere I looked. In bathrooms guys were grabbing six or seven paper towels to dry their hands. At a local buffet I saw mountains of food left on plates. It was all thrown away. Ironically, a sign near the buffet said “take all that you want but not more than you need.” I guess people ignored the second half of that message. And peering into garbage cans on the street, I was amazed at how much half-eaten food was thrown into the trash.

I have a bucket of Halloween candy on my desk that could feed a small army. I always buy too much, every single year. Will I ever learn? A lot of it will go off before it’s eaten. That also goes for bulk-buying at the warehouse stores. Buy only what you need, you don’t want to have a mountain of buns or granola bars if half of them go stale before you can eat them.


As I trawled through Craigslist, I saw people giving away all sorts of stuff they had bought too much of, including household paint and driveway gravel. (At least other people were getting use out of this stuff though, which is great. Recycling rules.)

I’m guilty, too. At work, we throw away reams and reams of paper each day due to mistakes, or more often than that, printouts for 10 people that are thrown away after a 30-minute meeting. In this day and age of electronic everything, we really need to be thinking about more efficient, and less wasteful, ways to conduct our daily business.

At home, I also found myself being wasteful without even realizing it. Take something simple, like Mac ’N’ Cheese. I made a box for my girls knowing that they would both leave some at the end of the meal. It was laziness on my part. And that’s no excuse at all.


A phrase like “use only what you need” should be good advice for all of us, ingrained from a small age until the day we die. If we all follow that advice, think of the savings we’d make as a society; savings that could be passed on to us, the customer. So give a thought to anything and everything you consume over the next few weeks, from a simple printout at work to a whole meal for your family. Use only what you need; take only what you need; buy only what you need. Nothing more.

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Guest's picture

buffet that has taken measures against wasted food. They have a policy that any wholesome food that is left in the steam table or on the buffets at the end of the night goes to a soup kitchen or a battered women's shelter, or some such worth cause. Therefore, if the customer wastes food, he or she is depriving that charity of food for no good reason. So if the customer leaves food on the plate, more than a few grains of rice or whatever, there's a surcharge of $1. In other words, a mandatory donation/penalty for wasting food. The collected surcharges are also given to the soup kitchen or whatever charity each evening. The usual rules against taking home leftovers from an all-you-can-eat meal applied.

I thought this was a brilliant idea. The restaurant was very upfront about the rule. I never saw anyone raise a stink about it, but I imagine they must have gotten some flak. I wish more restaurants would do something similar.

Guest's picture

If they don't let you take it home -- and I'm not talking about loading up an entire plate and making only a token effort to eat it -- frankly, it's their own fault.

Guest's picture

I'm surprised your local health department allows this. when i worked in restaurants we had to throw out all the leftover food while our local animal shelters were begging for food. when i suggested we donate our leftovers to the local farmers and animal shelters i was told we couldn't because the health department forbid it. I had customers who would load a mountain of fried chicken or other some other food on a platter, take one bite and make me take it away because they didn't like the taste. It infuriated me for the callous waste of good food on their part and for taking and wasting so much that there wasn't any left for other customers, and causing prices to go up for everybody.
Also, once i went to lunch at a Taco Bell with a teenage co-worker who grabbed a stack of napkins at least 3 inches high, used one and then threw the rest away in the trashcan as she walked out the door. i was horrified at her wastefulness. 2 to 4 napkins per person is plenty, depending on the size and strength of the napkin and how messy the food is. And if you don't happen to use the last one or two, for crying out loud don't just throw them in the trash, they will get thrown away if you leave them on your table so take them with you and recycle them as emergency wipes in your car (but don't take more than you need just to get free emergency wipes!)

Paul Michael's picture

It's always so tough to see so much food go to waste when so many people are hungry. I am doing my best to be better at home, but it's good to see places like buffets being proactive. Thanks Kate.

Guest's picture


Hey, great article. I live in Denver also and see these signs everywhere. It was funny, well sad, but funny. My brother and I were eating lunch at a restaurant and there was a small house across the street. The owner had a "use only what you need" sign staked in his yard. The owner then came out and proceeded to water his yard for 10-15 minutes. WAY more water than his small yard needed. We got a good laugh, but it is a shame that even people who support and promote the message still don't get it.

- Jack Rugile
Simple Sapien

Guest's picture

I certainly think this is a worthwhile slogan. We are spoiled rotten Americans here and don't even recognize waste anymore. Time to pay attention.

Guest's picture

I like to take extra ketchup and napkins all the time.

I take them home and use them. :)

Guest's picture

We go to Taco bell a lot for our Fourth-meal cravings, and whenever we get drive thru and ask for sauce, they give us way too much. We save them and keep them in a drawer, and use them as condiments; sometimes we have so much we actually tell them to not give us any, and we'll just use the ones at home.

I haven't bought a bottle of ketchup in forever, either!

Linsey Knerl's picture

I'm surprised that so many fast food companies still allow people to just grab excess condiments like that.  When I was managing fast food (10 years ago), we kept it behind the counter and only gave it out when asked.  We had a rule that it was one packet per item, unless they specifically asked for more.  Same with napkins -- I never see napkin dispensers on guest tables anymore.  We did it because it saved so much money.  Just makes sense.

Good article, Paul!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

I started a forum post on wisebread about how people reuse paper. Got s couple of creative ideas from it. I totally agree with this post. Even our dining habits can be cut back so much. The usual dinner meal from a local restaurant can feed 2 instead of one. Most people over purchase and eat more than necessary for a meal.

Guest's picture

I work for a small company, and one of our focuses is to re-use or avoid waste as much as possible. Those 20 sheets printed out for a client meeting? Turned over and put back in our printers to print out proofs, drafts, etc. Then they go in the recycle bins. We use french presses for coffee so we're not using filters, and those little tea "bullets" to brew our tea, not bags that have to be thrown away. You get the idea. It's a practice that we try to instill in our clients too, and it seems to be working some.

But I'll admit, grabbing extra napkins? Yeah, I'm guilty of that because I like having a stash in the car. They come in so handy sometimes!

Guest's picture

I think what you ultimately DO with your excess "stuff" is important, too... my family composts tea bags and coffee filters, and we bring any extra napkins from fast-food home to use. Granted, we don't grab 50 napkins to start with - but still, I won't throw a napkin away just because I grabbed too many.

I go to a lot of meetings where they print on one side only - that paper gets flipped over and reused in my personal printer. Way to go, Barbara's office! Glad to hear some people are taking recycling to the corporate level - wish every company/person would be this resourceful.

Guest's picture

When I was an angry young vagabond who sneered at society, I learned to keep an eye on leftovers at restaurants, and keep an eye on trash cans. You can eat a full meal from the garbage on what city people throw away. Entire pieces of chicken, sushi, bread, half-sandwiches, fruit, cake, all get tossed.

Guest's picture

Waste is an inevitable symptom of plenitude. If you don't always have more than you need, sometimes you won't have enough. This type of "virtue" will be exploited by companies to give you less, e.g. stores will charge you for bags, restaurants will charge you for each ketchup. Then you'll end up paying the same price, but won't be allowed an extra napkin to clean the mayo off your shirt. Companies make more money, while your reward for your asceticism will com in the next life.

Guest's picture
bubble dumpster

You just figured this out..?

Guest's picture

Residential water users are far more efficient than either industry or agriculture.

Rice grown in the western U.S. deserts, anyone?

Think of the waste from current irrigation practices.

Guest's picture

A friend of ours owns a popular downtown eatery that usually has leftover's from their homemade "soup of the day". Due to fluctuations in traffic flow, she sometimes has 2 or 3 gallons left, and due to the health act, cannot re-use it or freeze it. A simple solution to this waste, she thought, was to donate it to either the local homeless shelter, or to the food bank. Both instituions declined because they are not allowed to accept "un-labeled" foodstuffs. What a waste!

Guest's picture

I always save extra napkins, condiments, and plastic utensils. I can use those at home. I also save the plastic bags to use as trash bags.

Guest's picture

I too live in Denver and have seen these signs and think to myself, "what a waste". I am referring to the signs/ads themselves.

Does this have any impact at all? We all "know" not to waste, just as we know not to smoke. As an aside, do those "" commercials really have any traction?

Advertising isn't cheap. Wouldn't the funds spent in these ads be better used where there is an immediate, measureable, tangible benefit? Oh, I don't know, like in relief to aid the citizens of Denver/Colorado. (And those anti-smoking ads, how about using that money to help those who do smoke to quit? Or at least something meaningful)

I look at it this way. The ads themselves give some an "oh that's interesting" moment and don't really help anyone. But if the funds were used in relief or to actually help, someone could eat, get critical medication, find help getting a job or (insert meaningful benefit here). The assistance given might not be as widespread as the message, but the help given is real and appreciated by those who need it.

As for "buying what you need", especially during the economic turmoil we are experiencing now, this seems disingenuous since many don't have the means to buy what they need. You can't waste what you don't have.

Guest's picture

We could all do with a spell in a country like India where homeless people live in traffic islands in the road or sleep at the railway station. It would make us realise how you can live without so many things. We are greedy and spoiled!

Guest's picture

I take 50x the amount of napkins I need, but I take them home and use them. We stopped buying napkins about 5 years ago!