How I’m Reducing All My Carry Out Waste

Learn how to reduce waste from your carry out orders with the green-pack it movement.

Recently, I brought home food from a buffalo wings restaurant for my family. I got out napkins, silverware, and ketchup to put on the table as we started unpacking the carryout containers so that we could eat out of them. Unfortunately, as we reached for the food, we had to do some excavating to get it out of the bag from under a heap of ketchup packets, a stack of napkins, and several packaged flatware sets.

There’s got to be a better way to avoid all of this packaging waste — especially when we’re just bringing food home, where we have all we need to consume a meal. This is my call to action for us to start a “green-pack it” movement. 

During the pandemic, we’ve increasingly turned to delivery services, online order apps, and curbside pickups. The convenience is clutch, but the sustainability of it is awful. When we order remotely, we lose the chance to state a preference: to decline a bag for a sandwich, to turn down a straw for an iced coffee, or to bypass the stand with napkins, straws, and condiments.

Styrofoam carryout containers are largely unrecyclable, and even plastic containers need a rinse before they can go in the recycling bin. Disposable flatware is typically not recyclable, save for the few instances that compostable materials are used. And all of the napkins and condiment packets that go unused get thrown away — if not immediately, then at least when that auxiliary drawer full of sauce packets starts to overflow.

It’s understandable that restaurants want to provide the best customer service that they possibly can. So, particularly in instances when they don’t interact with the customer and are just leaving pre-sealed bags to delivery workers or curbside runners, it makes sense that they’d try to include every item they imagine a customer might want or need. And in a situation when a customer is eating on the run — a lunch break at work, a picnic or outdoor meal, a grab-and-go to eat during a car ride — this can be a massive help.

But on the other hand, if restaurants can work out sophisticated websites and apps that allow us to submit complicated, customized orders and set specific times for them to be ready, it seems like they could handle preferences for greener packing, too.

In my experience, the typical drive-thru, carryout, curbside, or delivery meal comes with a mix of napkins, straws, condiment packets, containers for sides, flatware packs, wrappers/containers for entrees, and many bags. In my household, we’ve still got a ways to go with green living, but we do have a set of cloth napkins, silicon and metal reusable straws, condiments in large containers in the fridge, glass snapware for leftovers, and, of course, plenty of plates, bowls, forks, knives, and spoons. So, if I knew I was eating at home, is there maybe a simple box I could check to decline those items?

I’d love to see a spot in my apps or online ordering websites that simply says “green-pack it” — then I could just check the box to decline the extras that often get thrown in the bag. It would also be my acknowledgement that the customer service I desire is the most economical and environmentally friendly packaging.

I’ve tried adding this preference in the “notes” or “comment” boxes to no avail, and when I’ve picked up food myself, most places now use a sticker seal on completed orders to minimize contamination risks, leaving me without a chance to decline these unwanted extras. I’m going to keep trying to write something or say something, and I think I’ll try posting pictures on social media with the companies tagged to invite a response. Maybe more local measures, like this one in Chicago, can help start changes on a small scale.

How do your carryout meals look? Is there more stuff in there than you want or need? What could you do to scale back this component of your consumption, even while still enjoying your favorite restaurants?

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