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COVID-19 forced us to take on new habits—many of which came plastic-wrapped. An increase in online ordering and takeout deliveries and a halt on plastic bag bans and reusable incentives meant that our already staggering consumption of single-use plastic increased during the pandemic.
Now that the dust is beginning to settle across the U.S., you might be thinking about how to get back into a more sustainable routine. Taking your reusable mug to the coffee shop again and bringing a tote to the grocery store are easy ways to start, but is there really such a thing as an eco-friendly takeout order? Honestly, right now, there isn’t. If avoiding waste is the goal, cooking your own food or eating out in restaurants will almost always be the better choice.
That being said, the next time a craving hits, these tips can help make your takeout a little less trashy:
1. Pick up your food instead of ordering delivery.
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Asking your local restaurant to place your order in reusable containers that you provide is one surefire way to avoid waste.
“Before the pandemic, what I would do is order takeout in person and provide reusable containers and ask the food to be put into those,” Sandra Ann Harris, the founder of ECOlunchbox and author of Say Goodbye to Plastic, tells mbg. “If that’s allowed at your local restaurant, that’s still a great option.”
If the restaurant is skittish about using outside containers right now, Harris says “another thing that you can do is place an order over the phone and ask them to plate it on a regular plate. Then, you can transfer the plated food into your own container when you pick it up.” She’s found that containers that can hold 6-8 cups of food are the best size for restaurant entrées. (Be sure to bring these for leftovers when you’re dining out, too!)
For those of us who order takeout specifically because we don’t want to leave our homes (let alone, our pajamas), these options might not sound like a lot of work. But once you get over the initial hurdle of finding a restaurant or two that are happy to honor your request, going back to them will become more second nature.
2. Order strategically and transfer food once it comes through the door.
For those days when getting off the couch really isn’t in the cards, you can avoid waste with a few strategic order tweaks.
For starters, opt for cuisines and dishes that tend to come wrapped in less plastic packaging, like burritos (often stored in aluminum foil, which is recyclable in some places) and pizza (the box is okay to recycle as long as it’s not greasy). If you know that a restaurant near you uses packaging that’s backyard compostable (very rare) or compostable in an industrial facility (more common, but you need to make sure you have one of those in your area), give them your order for the night.
Avoiding plastic packaging—especially with hot food—isn’t just easier on the planet; it’s better for your health. As low-waste advocate and registered dietitian Abby Cannon, J.D., R.D. reminds us, petroleum-derived plastics contain endocrine-disrupting compounds that leach into food and have been linked to weight gain, hormonal imbalances, and most recently, low sperm count.
On the rare occasion that she orders takeout food packaged in plastic (especially if it’s hot, which can increase the chances of leaching), she’ll transfer it to a glass or steel container right when it comes in the door. “That minimizes how much is leaching and enhances your experience because you’re not eating out of plastic,” Cannon says.
From there, she’ll rinse and properly recycle the plastic containers. She cautions against reusing them for food storage because of those endocrine disruptors, though if you can find some non-edible ways to give them a second life, by all means.
3. Tweak your order to avoid unnecessary plastic.
Single-use plastic utensils—wrapped in a single-use plastic film, no less—are the bane of many an eco-eater’s existence. To avoid these annoying and often unnecessary add-ons, leave a note with your order saying you don’t need utensils or single-use condiment packs. If you’re ordering over the phone, politely request that they leave them out. You can also ask for dishes to be packaged together in one container to minimize waste.
Since many restaurant workers are in the habit of doing things a certain way, chances are your requests won’t always get granted. And that’s okay. When it happens, don’t beat yourself (or the restaurant) up over it and try again next time.
4. Look into services that make low-waste ordering easier.
Today’s takeout industry is all about convenience, but convenience almost always comes with an environmental cost. So if we ever really want to do away with plastic waste, it’s going to take businesses getting involved and providing new ways to deliver food.
Here are a few companies doing just that:
- Reusable takeout companies: Some cities around the country have a network of restaurants that offer delivery in reusable containers that you can either return to the restaurant or keep for a fee. There’s the Deliver Zero app in NYC, GO Box in Portland, and Green to Go in Durham, North Carolina. Poke around to see if your area offers something similar.
- Too Good to Go: This app connects you with local restaurants that have extra food at the end of the day and lets you pick it up at a reduced price. Replacing your weekly delivery with a Too Good to Go pickup is an easy way to reduce food waste and avoid plastic packaging, as many of the items come unwrapped or minimally packaged. The company started in Copenhagen and is now in 15 countries and expanding in cities across the U.S.
- Plastic Score: This app lets you review local restaurants based on how eco-friendly their takeout services are. Restaurants with five “turtles” are nailing the whole plastic-free thing. Using and engaging with the app can help you find new restaurants to support and help incentivize change in your local restaurant scene.
5. Get your community involved.
While low-waste living is often treated as a solo endeavor, we enact more change when we gather in a community.
“Going zero-waste, especially when it comes to ordering takeout from restaurants, is a team sport,” says Harris. “Everyone has to work together.” In her San Fransisco Bay community, Harris has organized a Trashy Takeout task force that hosts events like low-waste picnics and symposiums that connect restaurant owners, local government members, and citizens to discuss solutions.
“We felt like if we all banded together and linked arms, we could come up with a healthier system within our city—for people and planet.”
If you’re considering starting something like this in your area, Harris says the golden rule is collaboration: “This isn’t about bashing the local restaurants. It’s about dialing in more consciousness around zero-waste… I’m a strong believer that where energy goes, action flows.”
Equipped with these tips, you’re ready to revolutionize your community’s takeout system—or at least avoid some plastic sporks. Don’t forget to pay attention to what’s inside your takeout containers, too, and prioritize local, sustainable eats.