Making Our Own Recyclable Takeout Containers

Making Our Own Recyclable Takeout Containers

Bringing My Own Container Is a Superpower, Not a Hassle

You’ve finished eating a delightful meal at El Bahia, our beloved Moroccan restaurant in New York City. As the server begins handing you a styrofoam or plastic-lined paper box to pack up the leftover American-sized portion you couldn’t finish, you politely say, “No, thank you.” Instead, you pull out a sturdy metal container or glass jar and pack up your food.

The next day, at home, you enjoy those tasty leftovers. You simply wash your reusable container or toss it in the dishwasher, and your trash bin remains blissfully unchanged. This has been my go-to move for over a decade now, ever since our household broke up with plastic back in 2011. It was one of the first steps we took on our journey to reduce our environmental impact.

The Outrage over Reusable Containers? Bring It On!

I’ll admit, I hadn’t really thought to post about this simple, common-sense tip. I assumed that pictures on social media of a container at the table filled with leftovers would just induce a few yawns, not a full-blown outrage fest. Boy, was I mistaken.

Recently, when I shared a video of my kids packing up their leftovers into metal LunchBots containers at a restaurant, the Facebook cesspool exploded. You can go there if you feel like wasting your time reading the angry comments and heated arguments that broke out, but I’ve already deleted some of the worst vitriol, including a racial slur and a “f*** off, Karen” hurled my way.

Yes, you read that right. A simple video of my kids packing up their leftovers in a responsible, environmentally-friendly way triggered this level of abuse. I’m almost impressed by the sheer intensity of the backlash – it must mean I’m really on to something here.

Dilemmas and Excuses, Debunked

When my daughter Charlotte was a little girl, she used to love playing a game with me. She’d ask, “Would you rather be eaten by a tiger or a shark?” or “Would you rather have this key break, making it impossible to play middle C on the piano, or have that key break, making it impossible to play C an octave below?”

She wouldn’t let up until I chose one. But you know what? When it comes to dining out and not finishing your meal, you don’t have to play that game. You don’t have to choose between wasting food or using a disposable container. There’s a third, far better option: Bring your own reusable container from home.

One-third of the food the world produces goes to waste, accounting for 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a significant driver of climate change. All the resources that went into producing and getting that food to your plate – the water, labor, energy, capital, seeds, fertilizers, and even the land cleared of carbon-sequestering trees – are wasted when that food ends up in a landfill. There, the food breaks down anaerobically, generating methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Meanwhile, over 38 million Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020, according to the USDA. With food prices increasing steeply worldwide, that number will only grow. Be thankful for that portion you can’t finish on your plate and bring it home. Now you have one fewer meal to cook and fewer dishes to wash overall, assuming you eat your meals on reusable dishes.

The Perils of Disposable Containers

Supply chain problems have both increased the prices of to-go containers and made them difficult for restaurants to obtain. As a result, restaurants are passing these costs on to diners. The fewer containers they hand out, the lower their costs. But these “free” containers do come at a cost – to the environment and to us.

One common comment I received went something like this: “You can’t heat food up in those metal containers, but you can heat it up in the plastic ones the restaurant hands out.” Well, yes, the laws of physics do make heating food in a plastic container inside a microwave possible. But the laws of chemistry might convince one not to.

According to an article from Harvard Medical School, heating up food in plastic can speed up the leaching of plasticizers – phthalates and bisphenols – into the food. These known endocrine disruptors have been linked to all kinds of adverse health effects, such as developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems.

And that’s not all. When we eat food and drink drinks packaged in plastic, we’re also consuming microplastics shed by these containers. A 2019 study found that the average American consumes about 50,000 microplastic particles per year. While scientists don’t yet know how a regular dietary supplement of these petrochemical-based microplastics will affect our health, I’ll make a wild hypothesis: It’s probably not good for us.

If you’d like to go on a plastic diet, eat less food packaged in plastic containers. And while more and more cities have banned expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers – those white foam clamshells and thick foam coffee cups – these cities are the exception, not the rule. Like all plastic, EPS pollutes along its entire lifecycle, from the extraction of raw materials to refining the petrochemicals to manufacture to a short use and finally to disposal, almost always in the trash.

Most municipalities don’t recycle EPS because it has very little market value. Recycling is a market-based system, and besides, it should be a last-ditch effort to address the plastic waste crisis, not the first line of defense.

As for food safety, EPS containers can leach toxic chemicals into the food stored inside, with heat speeding up the process. The US Department of Health and Human Services lists styrene, one of the main components of EPS, as a reasonably anticipated human carcinogen.

Even paper to-go containers aren’t a perfect solution. Without some sort of impermeable barrier, a paper tub containing soup will leak all over you. In some paper containers, liners made of polyethylene prevent leakage. Other liners consist of expensive PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastics that can break down where facilities exist. And some paper containers have been treated with perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to render them grease- and water-proof. Also known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS persist in the environment and accumulate in our bodies – in 98% of us, in fact.

Both the EPA and the International Agency for Cancer Research have labeled PFAS as possible carcinogens. PFAS have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, reduced birth weight, and smaller penises (source: The Guardian).

Even if the restaurant happens to carry cardboard containers that don’t contain BPAs, phthalates, and PFAS, single-use containers still waste resources. And anyway, who has time to sort all of this out? Make life simple and bring your own reusable container.

Taking Action Beyond the Plate

While I have you here on the topic of PFAS, please consider signing this petition imploring the Los Gatos Unified School District in California to ban plastic grass in K-8 schools. Among its many environmental problems, plastic turf exposes students to these harmful “forever chemicals.”

Just like fire season, Earth Overshoot Day comes earlier every year. This year, it falls on July 28th. With five months to go in 2022, humanity will have consumed all the resources that Mother Earth can regenerate in a year. That means we live on borrowed resources from August to December.

Of course, some of us consume much more than others, and to move that date back, we need industry and government to take action. But we individuals can also do our part, such as eating the food we buy and bringing our own containers to restaurants for leftovers. It poses zero downside, unless you actually care what internet trolls have to say about it.

Wait until they find out what I compost! 🤫

The Slow but Steady March of Progress

I’ve been carrying my own container for restaurant leftovers for a couple of decades now, and reactions have always been mixed. People either look at me funny, seem embarrassed on my behalf (especially in a business setting), or they think it’s cool.

Veeerrry slowly, I’ve been getting more of the latter reaction in recent years. Similarly, I used to be the only one around refusing a bag for my purchases, and once a cashier got really angry with me about that. Now, more people are bringing their own bags, at least to the grocery store.

Most people need to see other people doing something before they think it’s okay. So, the vanguard braves the trolls, paving the way for others. The more of us who calmly go about our business in environmentally mindful ways and make it look somewhat stylish, if we can, the faster things will change.

Being vegan still seems to drive some people berserk, though. Even being vegetarian offends some, but being vegan does push them right over the edge. I don’t know why people feel the need to be mean to others. Maybe they feel threatened, maybe they feel guilty.

But I’m not going to let a few angry comments stop me. I’ll keep sharing my tips and educating people, one reusable container at a time. Together, we can all be agents of change, part of the solution to the environmental challenges we face.

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