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Ordering In? Here’s How to Reduce Takeout Waste Like a Pro

As take-out popularity grows, so does packaging waste. Here's how you can limit yours!

Written by
Briana Dodson

Maybe you just finished your last class of the day, or you just got home from a long day of work. The last thing you want to do is cook dinner, so what do you do? Open your favorite food delivery app and have someone else do the cooking (and delivering) for you.

During the global pandemic, the number of takeout orders (and sales) has only increased, which means sustainable packaging is more important than ever. As this trend continues to rise, so do concerns about the environmental toll of all the extra packaging waste being sent straight to landfills—which are already almost at full capacity.

In this episode of Good Together, Brightly's co-founder and CEO, Laura Wittig, talks with Lauren Olson, the Zero Waste Manager at World Centric, about how businesses are creating eco-friendly solutions, how to be aware of certain labels, and tips for reducing your overall takeout consumption.

What Is "Compostable," Really?

You've probably noticed a ton of products sporting a "compostable" label. But whether you can actually put this in your at-home compost is another story.

World Centric, a manufacturer and supplier of compostable tableware, cutlery, and food packaging products, focuses on items that are "compostable in commercial composting environments," Olson says. "That means facilities that are designed to compost more than just your backyard composting operation."

Although some materials—like food scraps and food waste—may be suited for your home compost, your takeout container may not. That's typically because most takeout containers are made up of ingredients that need professional environments to break them down effectively. "So don't go throwing just anything in your backyard composting heap," she says. "If it's able to be composted at home, it will say 'home compostable' on the item."

Consumer confusion around what to compost (at home or professionally) isn't the only challenge associated with composting. Compost facilities themselves fear inviting compostable products into the mix because of the risk of contamination, which often occurs when consumers aren't always able to differentiate products. This puts entire loads of compost in jeopardy.

In order to increase your awareness of what can and can't be composted, check your local waste service manager's website. If the information isn't available online, give them a call.

Harmful Chemicals in Takeout

One of the most harmful chemicals restaurants use when it comes to takeout containers is expanded polystyrene (EPS)—or as it's commonly called, styrofoam.

"I would say it's probably the most toxic packaging product we're continuously exposed to for food service. It's considered a carcinogen, and it's not fully polymerized or bonded with the material. So it could possibly migrate into food, particularly hot food," says Olson. "Definitely avoid coffee in that styrofoam container."

Did you know polystyrene is also a direct derivative of the oil production process? "When they're making the crude oil or natural gas into different products, they get styrene as a byproduct. It's a great way for the petrochemical companies to get rid of that byproduct," says Olson. Makes you reconsider what you're eating out of, doesn't it?

Why Businesses Aren't Changing Their Ways

According to ReFed, each year the United States generates an estimated 571,000 tons of food waste in restaurants alone. Many businesses understand and have taken initiative to reduce waste and create innovative solutions. But the pandemic has caused plenty of small businesses to rethink their sustainable strategies when it comes to more eco-friendly takeout containers.

"Some restaurants have moved back from compostable to styrofoam materials," Olson says. "When I asked why, they said it was because of cost. They've been hurting so much financially."

Olson says she's also seen a rise in plastic-wrapped cutlery. Many places banned the use of reusable bags for the fear of contamination as well. Even plastic bag bans have been pushed back, or haven't been enforced, for sanitary reasons. But local ordinances can help and have the opportunity to lead by example.

"There's over 200 different ordinances across the country banning this. And I think that's a great step because it puts it at more of a level playing field for all the different restaurants involved," says Olson. Most recently, Virginia has banned styrofoam takeout containers, which goes into effect statewide starting in 2023. This is yet another example of how consumer and government behavior can really create change at scale.

Other businesses are aiming to tackle the issue of food waste in some pretty creative ways, including Burger King's green packaging pilot program and Shake Shack's use of AirCarbon. It's innovations like this that have the potential to change the restaurant industry for good.

You can also play a role in limiting takeout waste. Here are some simple things to keep in mind the next time you order food.

3 Ways to Limit Your Takeout Waste

1. Say No to Plastic Cutlery and Straws

Ever notice how many plastic utensils show up in your delivery bag? Most restaurants will add extra plastic utensils and straws out of convenience. According to National Geographic, billions of forks, knives, and spoons are thrown away each year. These harmful plastic items can take years to break down.

To limit the amount of plastic that ends up in your delivery bag, write a note in your delivery app, letting them know you don't need any plastic cutlery or straws. You can also call in to order so you can verbally express this as well. On the go? There are tons of great reusable travel utensil sets that can make your trips more eco-friendly.

2. BYOC—Bring Your Own Container

According to the EPA, containers and packaging—some of which are food-related—contribute to more than 23% of the trash that ends up in landfills in the U.S. That equates to nearly 39 million tons per year. What's one way you can help? Easy. Simply BYOC!

If you live near the restaurant, consider going in person to order and pick up your food. When doing so, bring your own container and ask that they put your meal in there instead of the typical styrofoam takeout container. You'll be surprised at how many places don't have a problem with it.

3. Try Cooking New Recipes at Home

Consistently coming up with new meals to cook for dinner each night can certainly be challenging. But that doesn't mean you always have to go the delivery route. It's time to get creative!

Whether you're basically a pro chef or you're new in the kitchen, experimenting with different recipes can be really fun. There's no shortage of interesting options to try, either. Start by transforming vegetable scraps into delicious desserts, or make these mouth-watering tofu recipes.

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