My Zero-Waste Week: How I Cut Down on Food Packaging When Eating (or Taking) Out

published Apr 28, 2016
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(Image credit: Joe Belanger)

During my week of zero-packaging experimentation, I quickly realized that food shopping was not the only avenue for reducing waste; takeout food and the containers it came in were adding significantly to the pile of trash I generated each day. Of course the easiest (and probably healthiest) way to address that problem is by skipping takeout entirely and packing up leftovers from my nightly meals to tote to the office for lunch, but sometimes that’s just not possible.

But, I wondered, could I apply the BYOC (bring your own container) approach I was employing at the grocery store to the ready-made food I purchased as well? Somewhat to my surprise, the answer is yes … with a few caveats.

Turns out that if you make it easy and ask nicely, many establishments, from fast-food joints to high-end eateries, will play along and help you avoid the unwanted plastic implements, paper napkins, and food containers that are part and parcel of the takeout experience. And there is good economic incentive for these places to do so.

The Cost of Takeout Packaging

According to Ed Schoenfeld, owner/partner in NYC’s Red Farm and Decoy restaurants, packaging up food to go is a big expense for restaurateurs. While a party of four sitting down to a meal of two appetizers and two entrees has a one-time cost of about 65 cents (the cost of laundering four cloth napkins and four sets of disposable chopsticks), packing up the same meal to go can easily cost four times as much.

The sturdy plastic containers high-end establishments like his use run about $.25 apiece, and in addition to four pairs of chopsticks, each order includes four sets of heavy-duty plastic cutlery, as well small containers for sauces, four good-quality paper napkins (nearly as costly as the real thing, surprisingly), and a paper and a plastic bag. All those disposable items are easily worth $2 — or more.

Eliminating any of those items from a takeout order is quite simply money in the pocket of the restaurateur, which means that if you march up to the takeout window of your local Chinese restaurant and ask them to use containers you provide, they just might surprise you by agreeing (and don’t forget to nix the duck sauces, fortune cookies, and 30 flimsy paper napkins they toss in reflexively).

A Case Study: 4 Days, 4 Restaurants

That said, disposable packaging is so deeply ingrained in the efficiencies of most restaurants — and the preferences of their customers — that going the waste-free route is far from easy. Over the course of one week I visited four different food outlets with an eye to using my own food take-away containers, and was met with decidedly mixed reactions. In the end, though, there was a lot less soggy packaging in the waste basket under my desk each day.

Day 1: Farm-to-Table Fast-Casual

My first stop was a fast-casual chain known for its farm-to-table offerings. Each customer’s order progresses along an assembly line where a base (grain or salad), protein, and two sides are portioned into a divided container that is covered with a lid and bagged. When I placed my order — charred chicken on field greens with sweet potatoes and sautéed winter greens — I handed the guy behind the counter a sturdy covered plastic container and asked if the meal could be portioned into that instead of their container.

“Well … we’re not really supposed to,” I was told. “Only for today, okay?” When I asked if this was a company policy and pointed out that my container was actually smaller than the ones they provided (and wouldn’t fall apart when I put my leftovers in the fridge) he responded by dumping a tongful of greens into my box, passing it downstream, and turning to the next customer.

I decided not to press my luck and made my way down the line. My container, meanwhile, continued its journey toward the cashier without further comment, although at each stop the partially filled box elicited a quick double-take — a surreptitious nod of the head in my direction — followed by a shrug, and a handoff.

When I stepped up to retrieve my meal and pay, the cashier asked good-naturedly why I was providing my own to-go box. “To avoid making more garbage,” I told her. “I like the way you roll!” she declared with a smile, correctly intuiting I would pass on a bag and napkins.

I later called the corporate offices to ask about the official policy on customer-provided containers, but their spokesperson declined to comment. She did, however, offer to tell me about their plans to go fully compostable in the coming year, a well-meaning gesture but one that is largely empty since most takeout trash winds up in a plastic bag and transported to a landfill rather than a compost pile.

Degree of difficulty (1 to 5): 1.7

Outcome: I got a right-sized portion with no waste in a container that kept the leftovers fresh and didn’t dissolve into a soggy, pre-composted mess. However, based on my experience, it would be hit or miss if I tried to make this a regular event at this chain.

Day 2: Trendy French Bistro

The next day I met a friend for lunch at a recently opened French bistro. The brainchild of a poultry-obsessed Alsacian chef, the restaurant is devoted entirely to chicken and its feathered brethren. As our 110-day-old Brune Landaise chicken roasted to order, my companion and I ate our way through the apps, sampling the mixed giblet platter and a sumptuous cognac-infused foie gras terrine.

In due time the bird, brandished briefly tableside before being whisked away for carving, was delivered with a pitcher of concentrated jus so luscious we all but drank with a straw. After all that rich foie and duck heart, though, we didn’t make much of a dent in the main event, and asked to have the leftovers divided in two and packed to go. Although I had my trusty covered container in my bag, I was a bit too embarrassed to proffer it in such elegant surroundings, to my dining partner’s evident relief.

The language barrier between us and the direct-from-Paris server became apparent when he proudly presented us with a jaunty, green-handled shopping bag holding a football-shaped box topped with a precarious plastic lid taped in place for the chicken, plus a separate covered cup for the jus. We explained apologetically that by “two containers” we had meant to share the chicken so we could each take some home, but as he turned back towards the kitchen, I was no longer able to resist.

I whipped out the covered plastic box, shoving it into our server’s hand and telling him, “Here, use this for mine!” while my pal stared assiduously at the dessert menu in embarrassment. Ten minutes later we were presented with two shopping bags, each containing its own football with two pieces of chicken. The only difference was that my bag also held my red-topped to-go box in which two tablespoons of chicken jus sloshed around. In addition, the management thoughtfully included a printed recipe card with recipes for repurposing the leftovers.

Degree of difficulty (1 to ): 2

Outcome: Getting up the nerve to ask was the hardest part, and although they were graciously accommodating, reducing waste was clearly not their priority.

(Image credit: Pam Krauss)

Day 3: Juice Bar

So far I’d achieved pretty good outcomes by walking into restaurants with a pristine-looking covered container, something recognizably intended for food storage. To up the ante, I decided to force the issue, visiting my local juice bar with a clean but clearly reused jar: a wide-mouthed, 10-ounce jar that formerly held Shop Rite brand imported marinated artichokes, to be exact.

Passing by the cases of pre-made bottled juices, I made a beeline for the smoothie bar and ordered a Nurse Ginger Green, a bracing blend of kale, spinach, and enough ginger juice to pack real heat. Along with my $10.75, I handed the cashier the jar and asked if they would use it instead of a clear plastic cup. Shrugging and giving me a whatever, you think that’s the weirdest thing I’ve heard in this place? look, she carried it down to the juicing team and explained my request.

A few minutes later I was handed a full jar neatly capped with the lid. “Can I ask why you wanted to bring your own jar?” the server asked me with some trepidation, clearly expecting me to launch into a Chipotle-inspired lecture on food handling. “I hate making unnecessary garbage,” I explained. “Oh, cool. Makes sense,” she said, and then leaned over the counter and added, sotto voce, “I agree with you,” as if admitting that she, too, thought the whole kale craze had gone too far.

Degree of difficulty (1-5): 1.2

Outcome: If a juice bar devoted to all things healthy and organic wouldn’t hop on the no-waste bandwagon, who would? But they were really quite nice about it (and drinking from my jar rather than slurping the smoothie mindlessly through a straw made it extra easy to save half of it for an afternoon snack).

Day 4: Suburban Fast-Food

My final foray into the world of BYOC was a suburban fast-food outlet, where a typical value meal order of chicken strips, beverage, and fries to go might involve as many as seven separate disposable items: a carton, a plastic tub of sauce, a paper cup and lid, a straw, a paper bag, and a napkin (or 20).

I strolled in at 2:15 p.m. in the hope that my special request would encounter less resistance without an impatient, 10-deep lunch crowd behind me. When I placed my order for “3 chicken tenders, small fries, and could you pack them in this, please?” I explained my goal was to get my food without taking anything disposable — at all.

Carrying my container between plastic-gloved thumb and forefinger with the distaste of someone who’d found a hair in her salad, the counterwoman conferred with her manager, both of them sizing me up warily. Apparently assured I was harmless (or at least that acceding to my request was the path of least resistance) the manager passed my container back through the pass, where an army of workers was swaddling burgers, wraps, and nuggets in paper and cardboard cartons.

There it sat for the longest seven minutes of my life (apparently that’s how long it takes to cook a fully frozen chicken tender.) The container eventually emerged, filled with fresh-from-the-fryer tenders, and the server handed it back to me. My fries? I reminded her.

The expeditor (my order had now involved the participation of at least five employees) called over to the fry station for an order of small fries. No, no bag, I insisted, they can go in the same container. We can’t do that, she squeaked, we’re not allowed to touch plastic!

Just drop them from above, yet another clerk suggested, the entire counter staff by this point clustered around my order, whereupon the fry gal upended the filled paper sleeve a full foot above my container, sending a good number of fries tumbling to the floor and the rest crowning my tenders. With that, the filled container was pushed across the counter much to the relief of all involved, including my fellow customers who had been observing the proceedings with no small degree of amusement if not much sympathy.

Degree of difficulty (1 to 5): 3.4

Outcome: Despite receiving somewhat less than a full order of fries, no disposable packaging was used for my order except for the discarded fries sleeve. I suspect, though, that my not being offered any sauces, napkins, or a bag was more a reflection of their eagerness to get rid of me than enthusiasm for my zero-waste campaign.

The Takeaway

If you do bring your own container, make sure it’s scrupulously clean; no one wants to handle someone else’s dirty dishes much less take them into a restaurant kitchen. And although no one raised the issue with me, there are surely liability issues about contaminating food preparation areas with outside materials.

It’s also going to be a lot easier to walk up to the counter with your to-go box and hold it out to be filled than to hand it through the drive-through window and wait as it makes the rounds through the food assembly area. If you are simply packing up leftovers from a restaurant meal, you may just want to go ahead and do the deed yourself at the table if you can do so neatly.

Finally, picking up your takeout fare rather than having it delivered always cuts down on packaging and waste; even if you aren’t allowed to use your own to-go boxes, you’ll be able to skip the extra condiments, napkins, and utensils that will just wind up in your junk drawer, a big savings on waste in its own right.