Bring Your Own Container Every Time You Dine Out

You’ve finished eating a meal at your favorite restaurant when your server begins to hand you a styrofoam or plastic or plastic-lined paper box for you to pack with half of the American-size portion you couldn’t finish. You say “No, thank you,” pull out a metal container or glass jar and pack up your food. At home the next day, you enjoy your leftovers. You wash your container or put it in the dishwasher and the level of your trash bin remains unchanged.

Because I started bringing containers to transport leftovers home back when we broke up with plastic in 2011—it was one of the first steps we took—I hadn’t thought to post about this simple tip. I had assumed that pictures on social media of a container at the table, filled with leftovers, would induce yawning—not abuse and outrage.

But now that Facebook pushes out Reels beyond the people who choose to follow my posts and into the general Facebook cesspool, when I recently posted a video of my kids packing up leftovers into metal Lunchbots at a restaurant, the cesspool exploded. You can go here if you feel like wasting your time reading angry comments and heated arguments that broke out but I deleted some of the worst vitriol, such as a racial slur one commenter hurled at another and a “f*** off Karen” hurled at me. First time I’ve seen that level of abuse in my posts. I repeat, I shared a video of my kids packing up leftovers in a restaurant.

The outrage…

Which would you choose?

When my daughter Charlotte was 8 or 9 years old, she liked to play a game I could never win. She would ask, “Which would you choose, to be eaten by a tiger or by a shark?” Or “Which would you choose? That this key breaks [pressing middle C on the piano] or this key breaks [pressing C an octave below]?” She wouldn’t let up until I chose. 

If you dine out and can’t finish your meal, you don’t have to play this game. Bring a container from home and prevent both packaging waste and wasted food. Many of life’s dilemmas, presented as either-or choices, almost always have a third, perhaps less-obvious option.

Some of the Facebook comments against bringing containers to restaurants

“Food is biodegradable. Wasting it is not a problem.”

One-third of the food the world produces goes to waste, accounting for 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and making wasted food a significant driver of climate change.

Food that goes uneaten wastes not only the food itself but all of the resources that went into producing that food and getting it to market—the water, the labor, the energy, the capital, the seeds and fertilizers, the land cleared of carbon-sequestering trees and so on. Once in a landfill, the wasted food breaks down anaerobically, generating methane gas—a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period

Meanwhile, according to the USDA, over 38 million Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020. With food prices increasing steeply worldwide, that number will no doubt increase. Be thankful for that portion you can’t finish on your plate and bring it home!

“But now I have a dish to wash!”

No, now you have one fewer meal to cook and fewer dishes to wash overall, assuming you eat your meals on dishes.

“Washing dishes consumes resources!”

As does living.

single use plastic spoon
This meme has floated around the internet for over a decade and still applies

“The containers the restaurant hands out are free! Take what you can!”

Supply chain problems have both increased the prices of to-go containers and made them difficult to find. Restaurants pass these costs onto diners. The fewer containers they hand out, the lower their costs.

These free containers do incur costs however—to the environment and to us.

Five problems with single-use, take-out containers

Plastic containers can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into food

A common comment ran along the lines of “You can’t heat food up in those metal containers but you can heat it up in the plastic ones the restaurant hands out!” Yes, the laws of physics make heating food in a plastic container inside a microwave possible. The laws of chemistry might convince one not to.

According to this article from Harvard Medical School, heating up food in plastic can speed up the leaching of plasticizers—phthalates and bisphenols—into food. Myriad studies have linked these known endocrine disruptors to all kinds of adverse health effects, such as “developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems.”

Plastics shed microplastics

When we eat food and drink drinks packaged in plastic, we consume microplastics shed by these containers. A 2019 study found that the average American consumes about 50,000 microplastic particles per year. While scientists do not know how a regular dietary supplement of microplastics, made of petrochemicals, will affect our health, I will make a wild hypothesis that it’s bad for us. If you’d like to go on a plastic diet, eat less food packaged in plastic containers.

Expanded polystyrene is plastic by another name

Although more and more cities have banned expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers—white foam clamshells and thick foam coffee cups, for example—these cities are the exception.

Like all plastic, expanded polystyrene 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 do not recycle EPS as it has very little market value (recycling is a market-based system). And besides, recycling 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 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists styrene, one of the main components of EPS, as a “reasonably anticipated human carcinogen.”

Many cardboard containers contain a plastic lining

Without some sort of impermeable barrier, a paper tub containing soup will leak all over you. In some paper to-go containers, liners made of polyethylene prevent leakage. Other liners consist of expensive PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastics that can break down where facilities exist.

Compostable paper containers may contain PFAS

Paper containers that have not been lined with plastic may instead contain 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—but only in 98 percent of us.

Both the EPA and the International Agency for Cancer Research have labelled PFAS as a “possible carcinogenic.” 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 do not contain BPAs, phthalates and PFAS, single-use containers waste resources (scroll back to the dark blue meme). And anyway, who has time to sort all of this out?! Make life simple and bring your own reusable container. 

While I have you here on the topic of PFAS, please sign this petition imploring the Los Gatos Unified School District (in California) to ban plastic grass in K to 8 schools. Among its many environmental problems, plastic turf exposes students to PFAS. 

Finally, food looks much more appetizing in reusables!

No time to waste

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 in order to move back the date, we need industry and government to do something.

We individuals can also take action such as eating the food we buy. And bringing our own containers to restaurants for leftovers poses zero downside, unless you actually care what trolls have to say about it. Wait until they find out what I compost.

Check out my cookbook here.

Canadian cover

11 Replies to “Bring Your Own Container Every Time You Dine Out”

  1. I hadn’t thought of doing this, what a great tip!

    1. Thank you! Glad you like it 🙂

  2. Carol L Nasser says: Reply

    Unbelievable that anyone would find a common sense approach a reason to spew such negativity. Keep up the good fight, there are many of us that fall short in our efforts to make a difference. We learn so much from you and every baby step some of us take to change our habits is a step in the right direction. I applaud you!

    1. Thank you very much! I really appreciate it! 🙂

  3. Jeanine Boyers says: Reply

    Sorry about the trolls. Hopefully, it just means you are having an impact. Keep up the good work! Love your articles.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I really appreciate it!

  4. I’ve carried my own container for restaurant leftovers for a couple of decades now. Reactions have always been mixed. People either look at me funny/seem embarassed on my behalf (especially in a business setting), or they think it’s cool. Veeeerrrryy 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 (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 ok. 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 people beserk though, lol.

    1. Even being vegetarian offends some people, but being vegan does push them right over the edge!!

  5. Céline Harrand says: Reply

    I don’t know why people feel the need to be mean to others. Maybe they feel threatened, maybe they feel guilty.

    I don’t think my comment could somehow compensate all the vitriol you got, but I wanted to thank you.

    I have been reading you, silently for a few years, and I admire your tenacity in wanting to make this world a better place, and by sharing your ideas and educating people.

    You are a source of inspiration. You are an agent of change. You are part of the solution. Thank you.

    1. Celine, I think your comment to Anne-Marie is great!.Today, a collegue who has ran be down in a number of ways, told me when I said I was concerned that our company paid for volunteer t-shirts made in Bangledesh, as our company is supposed to be doing good in our community andyet they are not looking into the labor issues and textile manufacture (It is part polyester and inorganic cotton), in a third world country and how I had a no-plastic inititaitive in July 2021, that I was not going to change the world, that people will continue to do what they wanted. I decided then and there, I am not dealing with this employee in less I have to in work processes. I turned and kept it to myself, I am going to be the change, and live according to my principles. I am happy the resources are out there like Zero Waste Chef, and other Zero waste whatever, eco-blogs that help me stay the path. I believe these resources are every bit as authenic and helpful as any book for any religion. I thank Anne-Marie and other crusaders for chaning our consumer habits, who take the time to research what so many of us, can’t as we have day jobs that require more than full-time supposed hours.

  6. I recently had a truckdriver shear off the front end of my car while I was parked in it, had just got in my car. He stopped to ensure his truck was okay, and the left the scene. I was okay but shaken. Considered a “hit and run”, I was stunned by the number of people who said, “Oh, that is really common here”, I thought “really??” I was just getting my phnoe to take a picture when he left, and his license plate was muddy so I couldn’t read it and then he took off. The police and tow truck driver arrived in short order, as rush hour was about to start. The tow truck driver advised me to hurry and grab what was essential. I had just bought some produce, grabbed that and my work “stuff”. What got left behind was the cloth shopping and other produce bags, my old metal coffee to go container, the metal little boxes and old plastic containers for left-overs at cafes and restaurants, plus the metal cutlery set and cloth napkin I carried in my glove compartment. It was a few days later that I went to grocery store in the rental car, without thinking about needing new bags and parphanelia. So ended up having to buy some paper grocery bags at the check-out. Then when the insurance company no longer covered the rental car and I was put in the colliison company’s lender, I forgot to put new all my ‘shopping stuff” in the collision lender car. Maybe I was dazed by all the insurance detials, but shopping without my take no plastic gear felt icky, that I had to refuse once again the single use “stuff” the cashiers’ would try to offer me. It has been years since the restaruant staff insist that I take their styafoam boxes to pack up my leftovers, as they didn’t think it looked okay for me to being using my circa 1960’s plasic containers.

    Even though my kids think that my generation is soley responsible for climate change, they turn their noses up in disgust at a meal without animal protein and don’t consider it dinner. I however get tired of throwing their untouched vetegarian dinners in the compost as I can’t eat it all. I still am having challenges getting a local meat store that can tell you where it was killed locally accepting my metal containers pushed over the counter. They say it is COVID related, I can’t figure out what part of that is Covid, they use gloves, and I bring a cloth they can put under the container.

    What amazes me how work outings are always directed to places that sell items made of refined sugar. I was considered odd when I was young as I didn’t like sweet things other than fruit, and now I am a pre-diabetic, but if I refuse the outing, I am considered non-social in this time of the Great Re-opening. I have experience moral outrage that I am expected to pay for and then eat something made of refined sugar.

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