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.
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.
“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.