Plastic Free July Day 7: To-Go Containers

stainless steel containers

(Picture credits: U-Konserve, Eco Lunchbox, Planet Box)

(Back to the challenge summary)

This blog post was written by our Plastic Free July partner Zero Waste California. This is the last one of our series "Being Plastic Free On The Go".

It’s late Friday night, you are tired and don’t feel like cooking up a meal and dirtying your dishes. So you order some Chinese food or maybe a pizza. Do you have it delivered or pick it up as take-away? Or maybe you had a quick bite on your way home from work and are bringing back some leftovers for later.

styrofoam containers pollution

What’s the problem here? Well, it’s not the food, it’s the materials used to transport that food to your home. Surrounding your lo mein and spring rolls are a sea of plastic bags (see Day 6), plastic utensils (see Day 3), and of course, plastic to-go containers, sometimes even styrofoam. They’re often not recyclable, and worse, they’re toxic.

The Issue with Single Use To Go Boxes

plastic pollution worldwide

In the United States, plastic packaging is the most commonly found item in municipal waste!!!

Fast food, take away orders, food delivery... these quick conveniences all come packaged, and 99% of the time, these packaging items are not recyclable. Arguably worse, over 50% of packing items that are recyclable do not actually get recycled, and end up in landfill.

Almost 30% of the United State's greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we produce and discard these items!!! In fact, that percentage is higher than the greenhouse gasses emitted from driving cars or heating our homes!  (Source: Vox, University of California, see the video below).

Think of the last time you order Dominos (I was probably 21, but I still remember it well). In the Bay Area, Recology is actually able to compost pizza boxes, but Dominos never just delivered pizza. It always came with plastic packages of parmesan, red pepper flakes, plastic utensils, and more. Order from Papa John's? For some reason they place a plastic tripod on every pizza, right in the center of the pie. I never understood what that was for. So the box doesn't hit the top of the pizza? So the pepperoni can stand on a pedestal and tell us the apocalypse is coming? It keeps me up at night.

And that's just PIZZA. Order any other style of take-out or delivery food and it is just plastic containers wrapped in plastic bags with a side of plastic.


Wait, what about Doordash or GrubHub?

Unfortunately, at this time, I had to say goodbye to delivery service apps. There is simply no option to get these items delivered sustainably. Even the restaurants that use compostable containers still package their food in plastic bags. Also, there is no option to NOT have plastic utensils (wrapped in plastic) delivered with your meal. Every meal, even if it is going to your own home, comes with a handful of plastic utensils, straws, and non-recyclable condiment packages. So until these establishments make some serious eco-friendly changes, I must say, good day, sir. ...I SAID GOOD DAY!

 (My apologies: sometimes gallows humor is the only way I can stomach environmental issues)

Some companies have considered bio-based packaging as part of the solution.

Do you think this could be an effective alternative? What are the pros and cons?

I agree that some people simply will not change their habits no matter what. For these people, bio-based containers may be the only realistic alternative, as it does not require any change of habits on part of the consumer.

Luckily, most of us give a hoot. Reusable containers are by far the most efficient way to transport and carry your meals, whether you are bringing a homemade lunch to the office, bringing your leftover dinner back home to eat later, or simply want a zero waste snack later in the day.

The Solution: Bring your own containers!!!

(Notice a trend, yet?)

 glass reusable container to go

There are multiple options for bringing your own reusable containers. Like most other zero waste circumstances, this does not mean going out and purchasing a new lunch box, stainless steel containers, bento boxes, or other new container-like-items. Use what you have. Most of us have plastic sealing containers, those will work for now. And if you do decide to upgrade to more sustainable container materials, use those old plastic containers for storing nails, nuts, bolts, hair accessories, arts/crafts items, etc.

Repurposed items are a zero waster's best friend.

Now, when you eat out, you can bring your food home without any environmental guilt. Now you don't have to use and discard another piece of styrofoam because you wanted to give that last bite to your dog at home (guilty). Or because you didn't think pouring magma-hot soup into a flimsy plastic container was a safe idea (been there). Or because you live in a house full of silverware (ideally) and there's no need for 5 bags of plastic utensils mixed with a napkin, salt and pepper, and wrapped in plastic.

Some companies have opted for compostable containers

It's true, and whereas this is a step in the right direction, it's still not a perfect solution. Firstly, we can't guarantee every consumer will compost those materials, especially if they do not have the ability to compost, or access to a composting facility.

Secondly, a compostable box is still a single-use item. Single-use items are still convenience items that cost energy and water to be produced, and energy to biodegrade. So whereas this is a step in the right direction, it is still not a truly zero waste solution.

Snacking is one of the best parts of life. Let's do it sustainably.


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