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Eating Out More Responsibly

Updated: Mar 18, 2019

So many of us enjoy eating out occasionally.  Sometimes no one feels like cooking or other times we are marking an event or milestone with a special meal. Often there are leftovers, but the brown paper “doggie bags” of the past have morphed into polystyrene (Styrofoam) clamshells or plastic containers. Ugh, but what can you do? No one wants to miss out on that leftover burrito for lunch!

Many years ago, we were out to dinner and a friend brought some of her reusable food storage containers to the restaurant.  My immediate reaction was along the lines of “is this person crazy?” Why would someone bring their own containers to a meal at a restaurant?  But my friend wanted to take her leftovers home, and she did not want to do so in whatever the restaurant was going to provide. 

Since then, I have often thought about that night when I go out to eat.  Most of the time I can usually recycle whatever take-home containers are provided for my leftovers (although as today’s NYT article states, that is getting harder and harder), but certainly not polystyrene containers. They are very light and cheap to purchase, but they can’t be recycled and are very slow to biodegrade. A friend in the plastic/chemicals industry, whose company helps facilitate dense polystyrene collection (e.g. the kind that you find in the packaging of a television), explained that once food comes in contact with the polystyrene containers, the oils from the food render the container no longer recyclable. At least there is some movement in the restaurant industry to eliminate these products: Dunkin

Even though paper, foil, or plastic take-home containers can be recycled, wouldn’t it be more environmentally friendly just to bring reusable containers? I pondered that question for a while until I finally worked up the courage to bring my own containers to a restaurant several years ago. It is one thing to show up at the supermarket with your own bags, since that seems to be socially acceptable. It is a different matter entirely to bring your own containers to a meal. 

I will admit I was pretty nervous the first few times I did this because I felt like people were watching me. It was hard for my family, too, who initially wanted to pretend they didn’t know me. But eventually I got used to it, and so did they. Just like bringing our own bags to the grocery store, now we rarely leave the house for a meal without putting some food storage containers into an unobtrusive canvas bag.

This practice has generated several positive comments from wait staff and even one memorable conversation with the owner of a local restaurant.  He was quite pleased when he saw us scooping up our leftovers into our own containers. He told that he cooked one meal a week for his staff, and they took their food home in the take-out containers used for guests. However, the number of containers and cost started to add up quickly. So, the owner insisted his staff bring their own containers from home and they were all happy to comply.

Brining your own containers to restaurants is an easy way to redefine waste by eliminating the source of waste altogether. I encourage you to give it a try the next time you head out to eat. It may feel awkward that first time, but you may be surprised at how quickly it becomes a new routine.

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