You’re out and about, running errands, picking up kids from school, on your way home from work, or whatever your daily routine looks like with all its busyness — each task vying for your attention. Your stomach starts talking to you, loudly… And there, all of a sudden, through the windshield you see it, your hero across the horizon: Arby’s (or insert other favorite fast-food joint here)! The quick and convenient solution to your needs, especially when you don’t have dinner at home (or the food you’ve got waiting there all seems bland in comparison). When you’re hungry, the idea of zero waste takeout doesn’t really stick to the forefront of your mind. Quickly, you turn into their welcoming parking lot, order your food, enjoy the simplicity of being able to eat right away and the only clean-up required is tossing a bag of trash. 

Maybe it’s this scenario, or maybe instead of a drive-thru you’ve gone to a sit-down restaurant and needed to package up your leftovers, or maybe you’ve made it home but you’re exhausted so Grubhub saves the day with delivery… Whatever your scenario, I’ve been there. To be honest, it’s a weekly struggle for me. Life can become so busy so quickly and food is one of my weak spots for minimizing waste. We are surrounded by convenient options and most of them don’t have an eco-friendly alternative for packaging. How do we even attempt zero waste takeout?

Before I go on, let me point out one very important thing

Being able to choose what we eat is an absolute privilege. There are food deserts all across the U.S. where healthy (let alone environmentally-conscious) options are incredibly limited. In this post, I’m addressing those who have the privilege of choosing where and what they want to eat because it is something we often take for granted and the effects of our choices should not be ignored. 

That being said, ordering our food and throwing away the packaging has been the norm of our culture since the early 1900s. It’s really challenging to picture the system being any different. Is it really a problem then? We throw our trash into a bin, or our recycling into a blue bin, and it all gets taken care of… right? 

If I’ve learned anything in my zero-waste journey, it’s the vastly deep truth of “out of sight, out of mind.” Let’s break down some of the biggest problems with our take-out packaging because once you know, you can’t easily forget.

Paying for Trash and Toxins

waste and trash on a beach

We are not only paying for our food when we order, we’re paying for trash. Out of every $10 spent buying things, $1 (10%) goes to packaging that is thrown away. (source) That money adds up, and I can’t imagine taking 10% of the money I spent on a meal and just tossing it into the garbage. But get this, on top of paying for trash, we’re also paying for toxins to be distributed into our air, our water, our soil, and as a result through all of that — into our bodies. 

Common plastic take-out containers are often put into the trash to begin with, and they aren’t always easily recyclable or accepted. Even if they make it to a recycling facility, they may be sent to the landfill anyway due to food contamination or some other reason (source). And let’s say it does get recycled, plastic does not have an infinite lifespan and is normally recycled 1-2 times before it’s reached the limit. This means it will inevitably end up in landfills, water sources, polluting our air, and so on. Plastic also does not break down 100%, eventually degrading into microplastics instead. These pass through our waterways and into our oceans and wildlife. 

The Earth Resource Foundation reports that Styrofoam manufacturers are the fifth largest producer of toxic waste. It can’t break down, creates harmful air pollutants, and becomes a choking hazard to animals. Over 90,000 people working with polystyrene (the plastic used in styrofoam, Solo cups, and more) are daily exposed to carcinogens and other detrimental effects, such as gastrointestinal problems, irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. (source) Polystyrene is so toxic, in fact, to both human health and the environment that it has been banned in about 100 cities across the U.S. and in multiple countries as of 2018. (source

Whether it’s polystyrene or another form of single-use plastic, I don’t want to spend 10% of my food order on a substance that is toxic to my own health and the environment. I don’t want to spend 10% of that money to encourage further manufacturing of packaging that is harmful to the very employees working to produce it.

And I’m here to tell you that it’s not necessary. (say it louder for the people in the back!) Zero waste takeout is possible with a little planning ahead.

3 Powerful Steps for Zero Waste Takeout

Your actions matter. You CAN make a difference, and the information I’m about to provide shows what a big impact many people are already making! And, bonus, each of these steps costs nothing except for a little time and thought. Here are the top 3 steps for zero waste takeout:

  1. Bring your own container
  2. Contact businesses asking for reusable/biodegradable options
  3. Request aluminum foil instead of plastic

Let’s unpack each of these.

Bring your own containers

zero waste takeout containers with food inside

This is easiest to do when you’re dining in and you’ve brought something to package up your leftovers before heading home. It can be as simple as keeping some tupperware in your car, or even previous take-out containers that are fairly durable. If you want to invest in a nice to-go set because your budget allows for it and it may help you remember to use it, there are lots of options out there like these

When you bring your own container into a take-out or fast food joint, it will likely be hit or miss whether they’ll allow food to be placed in it. There are some regulations currently against this for sanitation reasons, but it’s not the same everywhere you go, so it never hurts to try. Something I’ve noticed in my efforts is that many of the take-out places that refuse my own container aren’t the healthiest choice to begin with (like fast and highly-processed food). So this has actually encouraged me to develop better eating habits. 

Here’s what’s really exciting to me: with more awareness being raised on the climate crisis and the terrible effects of single-use plastics, more people are jumping on board with bringing their own containers. This is causing restaurant owners to pay attention! One restaurant owner, Sam Fox, says, “Everyone is more conscious and more aware of everything… It all adds up when the masses start doing it.”  (source)

Individual actions coming together to create these so-called “masses” are motivating businesses to make changes, to be more creative, and to take ownership of how their industry is impacting our environment. Some of the inspired ideas coming about now are programs like “GoBox” or “Canteen by Dig” which provide a rental service of take-out containers for customers to bring back to be cleaned and then reused! 

Contact businesses asking for reusable/biodegradable options

emailing to businesses about zero waste takeout options

This leads me to the second simple step you can take. The thing is, even with the effects of the masses described above, it will most likely be a long time before the majority of the population brings their own containers consistently, and the responsibility of producing less waste needs to be placed on the shoulders of the corporations creating it all. This is called focusing efforts “upstream” vs “downstream”. If your actions have power as an individual, imagine how much more power these established corporations have and think of the impact they’re already making (positive or negative) on our environment.  

What’s ironic is that it’s MUCH more cost-efficient for restaurants to opt out of disposables and switch to sustainable items (both for dining in and for zero waste takeout containers that could be returned and reused). However, it’s considered risky to go back to something that used to be the norm when our current system has been built on the convenience of throwing packaging away. “Some business owners shriek when we say ‘You might want to hire a dishwasher’… But even with that cost, you’re still saving money and you’re creating a job.” (source)

You may be wondering why I’m putting such a high emphasis on reusable packaging rather than compostable or biodegradable options, so I’m going to share something that absolutely shocked me. Many “compostable / biodegradable” options are coated in chemicals to make them more grease-resistant that are actually not doing any good. “All molded fiber bowls contain PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a broad class of more than 4,000 fluorinated compounds that do not biodegrade naturally in the environment.” (source) These end up polluting the compost and adding toxins to the soil and water sources they were supposed to be helping, which ends up bringing those toxins right into our very own bodies! If business owners want to go this route because it’s an easier switch from single-use to compostable materials, it’s important to encourage them to do their research and make sure they know more about where these items are being sourced and what the manufacturing process looks like. Chances are, if they’re considering the switch, they want to do better for the planet so this information may surprise them, too. 

I’ve drafted a template for you to use if you need help emailing the businesses of your choice. Feel free to use this as a foundation and change it up according to what fits your needs. I’ve found that when you Google something like “contact Qdoba corporate feedback” you can easily find where to send your message. It may be that the business provides an email, phone number, or a feedback form in which you can submit your message (like the image below).

Dear Qdoba Management Team, 

I have been a loyal customer for many years and I greatly value the variety of vegetarian and vegan options you provide. I would like to request that you please consider adopting reusable packing in your services, or at least switch to compostable packaging. As global awareness is being raised regarding the harm single-use plastics are doing to our environment, now is the perfect time to make sustainable changes. Many businesses are finding success with their customers by providing reusable to-go containers that can be returned, washed, and re-used, and they are saving money in the process by not having to buy single-use disposables anymore! I’ve linked an article here that shows more information about their success in saving money, taking care of our planet, and providing more jobs through these programs. This article also provides information regarding compostable packaging and the importance of making sure it is not coated in toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process, as this means the packaging cannot actually be composted. Thank you for your efforts in valuing your customers, their dietary needs, and for considering this incredibly important opportunity to make your business more sustainable for our environment. 

All the best,

Katie

While you may change the wording of this email template, it is important to note the format for. You want to acknowledge what they’re doing well before specifically addressing the problem you’re noticing. Give a direct call to action, and provide evidence that supports why this change will be effective and successful for their business. (You may need to paste the URL for an article rather than linking it like mine)

Change is always risky, but with the growing masses, it becomes necessary. And there wouldn’t be masses without individual voices, so who will you contact this week?

Request aluminum foil instead of plastic

aluminum foil holding leftovers for zero waste takeout
image credit: Woakamkurhram [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The final step I’m providing is to request aluminum foil instead of plastic packaging if your food can easily be wrapped to-go (like a leftover sandwich, pizza slice, etc). Aluminum is one of the highest-value items you could recycle, due to its infinite lifespan, but you’ll want to follow these steps first:

1. Make sure the foil is cleaned from any food residue

2. Separate the foil from any other material (stickers, cardboard, and so on)

3. Be sure to crumple all your aluminum foil together into one big ball before throwing it into a recycling bin so that little pieces don’t get separated and lost in the process (source).

This step really is that simple when attempting zero waste takeout, and it’s easy to build this habit while working on taking the other two steps consistently!  

Protect Your Health and the Planet

This is a process. These steps take time, and you probably won’t see vast changes from big corporations or in yourself overnight, but that’s ok. The important thing to remember is that nothing happens without somebody doing something. And you’re not alone. With your actions, you’d be joining the masses of people who ARE making a difference and whose choices ARE inspiring many businesses to re-think their current systems. Change takes time, but it takes engagement first. 

Where can you begin? Which step will you take, and then which step will you take after that? Give yourself grace in the journey. I do the best that I can when it comes to zero waste takeout. Sure, sometimes I forget a container or I choose to eat somewhere I know isn’t the healthiest (for me or the earth), but I don’t give up when that happens. Each day provides new opportunities to do your best.

Keep going. You’ve got this.   

Be sure to check out the free PDF guide on the Home page, available for you to download and get started with some other simple steps. One of the pages even talks about meal planning, and that has definitely helped me to make healthier choices, which has then helped me to reduce the amount of waste from single-use packaging!