Posts in eating out
5 ways i avoid foodware waste

I love food: Trying new foods. Going out to eat. Ordering Chinese.

But you know what I no longer love? Take out.

Since becoming more intentional about avoiding single-use packaging, going out and ordering food has become more stressful. When I don’t feel like cooking, the option of ordering take out is not a suggestion that puts me at ease. It does quite the opposite.

So, what to do? Here are five ways I avoid the terribleness that is single-use foodware:

I rarely order “take-out” or “to-go” food. This might initially sound like a bit of a downer, but honestly I feel alright about it. Food never tastes as good when you order it as it does in a restaurant. And all the new delivery services are expensive. Plus, take-out food isn’t usually the healthiest. When I’m feeling lazy about making dinner, we eat something super simple like a frittata, baked potato, rice bowl, pancakes or granola. Even if what I come up with isn’t healthy, at least it’s a lot cheaper than take out.

I order pizza. Yep, that’s our main source of delivery. Pizza. It comes in a box that is reusable (great for poster making!) or compostable (the greasy bottom part). Just make sure to ask for no condiment packets and NO “PIZZA SAVER” (that silly plastic table they put in the center of the pizza.

I BYO utensils and cups. I always have small metal cups and reusable utensils and straws in my bag. This way, if we go to a restaurant to dine in, but they’re using disposables (the worst!) then I can still minimize my waste. The cups come in handy for splitting beverages amongst the kids. Or at an event where they’re serving wine in a plastic cups! I have about 10 of them that I bought at H-Mart. Asian grocery stores are a great place to find stainless steel cups and plates.

I take a container everywhere. I always have a little bag, beeswax wrap, or container in my bag for food. If we eat out and there are leftovers, I slide them into my container. Never once have I gotten any negative comments or looks from a server or fellow diner. It works great; you can even take the extra bread! Health codes have provisions about restaurants touching your container. But they can put it on their plates and then YOU can put it in your container. So, even if you don’t want to dine in, you can still order “for here” and then just take it with you!

I usually use an old plastic container because it’s light. But my favorite are the Onyx stainless steel containers. If you can’t find them at a store near you, order (with free shipping!) from the Package Free Shop!

I tell restaurant workers and managers how I feel about single-use foodware. Last month, in California, Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a groundbreaking ordinance aimed at reducing the use of single-use disposable foodware. Restaurants are now required to use real plates and cups and utensils for customers dining in. For takeaway, containers must be compostable and come only at a 25 cent fee. And that’s not all! The city is working on implementing a program of reusable to-go containers with pick up and drop off locations around the city.

This is an example of how real change will happen. We need our systems to fundamentally change. I haven’t started pushing the Denver City Council yet (frankly, our city has a lot of other issues to address first that Berkeley probably addressed in the 1990s), but telling restaurants that I don’t like their single-use foodware is a good place to start. Just last weekend we went to a great local restaurant and our only complaint the whole meal was the plastic drink stirrer in a cocktail.

Demand what you want as a consumer!

unnecessary restaurant waste

I am annoyingly concerned about waste. For the past several years I've been working on reducing waste overall, and more recently I've become more aware of the problems with plastic, so I try to avoid it as much as I can.

My willingness to ask others to help me out on these issues has increased over time. For awhile, I just gave in to how our society and economy functions. I went with the flow and didn't want to make too many waves. I feel differently now. I guess you could say I’m more of an activist now. I think every single voice matters. I think one person can spark change.

A couple years ago, we were out at a local pizza place, and I overheard the two groups in front of us ordering. They both had dietary restrictions. The first was allergic to gluten. The second was severely allergic to tomatoes. Setting aside the conclusion that these folks should have perhaps considered a different cuisine for their Saturday night, the restaurant, rightfully so, made great efforts to accommodate their needs. Then, we ordered, and despite our requests, we received straws and sippy cups. Now, I do not have any immediate health risks with straws or sippy cups, so this comparison is of course only tenuous at best. Allergies are no joke. But the damage single-use plastic is doing to our earth is not something to take lightly.

Below I'm listing a few of the small actions I take to minimize waste when eating out. Maybe if more of us make these "waste restriction" requests at restaurants, they'll start to change their ways.

UNNECESSARY WASTE #1: Single-use cups
Request no kids' cups
Success rate: High. Restaurants seem to understand when you want your kid to use their own cup.
Annoyance factor: Low. You have to remember to ask quickly, but it's usually met with reasonable response.
Benefits: Waste reduction; fewer spills

As soon as the host is leading us to our table, I try to remember to tell them we don't want any sippy cups or straws. Sometimes they tell me I can tell my server, but usually this is the time to ask, because most restaurants waste no time bringing out waters. Kids' cups drive me the most crazy of all waste-producing restaurant trends. It is common practice in our parenting world to have a water/milk/juice cup for your child. Almost every parent I know rarely leaves home without one. Therefore, most kids who arrive in restaurants are already going to be in possession of their own cup. We don't need to add more plastic to the world!

Now, you may be thinking, what about those cute plastic cups with cartoons on them and bendy straws that you can take home and reuse? First of all, the exciting nature of these cups makes them more of a problem than they're worth. My kids are always trying to test the straw's functionality in a way that results in spillage. Also, they are made of such cheap plastic that they don't hold up at home, so you're going to throw them out soonish anyway.

Related: what age does a kid have to be before restaurants will just give them a regular glass!? Seriously.

Request "no straws" and BYOS
Success rate: Low
Annoyance factor: Medium (server usually looks at you like you're crazy)
Benefits: Waste reduction; use of more enjoyable metal straw

I usually have success preventing kids' cups from appearing at the table. Straws, however, are a much bigger challenge. I think it's just force of habit? Restaurants that serve drinks with straws just can't seem to help themselves. I've also seen my drink appear on a bar with a straw, and then the server just takes the straw out and throws it away. Giving me what I want, I suppose, but missing the point. Nevertheless, I'm going to keep asking.

Perhaps the most egregious of all straws are cocktail straws. Usually, they're used merely to stir a drink, and then placed aside. Plus they usually give you two straws per drink! When ordering a cocktail, I try my best to remember to request no straws. I really think restaurants should invest in trendy drink stirrers. It seems so odd to me that a nice place serves you a $12 drink with a plastic straw...

When I do succeed, but still want a straw, I use metal ones that I carry with me. More enjoyable to drink from, too, I find.

UNNECESSARY WASTE #3: To-go containers
Bring your own container(s)
Success rate: Very high. No one has ever said anything.
Annoyance factor: Low. You're basically doing your server's work for them, right? Sometimes I feel a tad awkward, but there's really no reason to!
Benefits: You can not only take your leftovers home, but also the food you probably wouldn't want to ask for a container for (bread, rice, condiments, etc.). Not only are restaurant take-out containers not usually recyclable, but they're also often not air-tight. If you bring your own container, you don't have to transfer the leftovers into a different container when you get home!
Exception: Pizza boxes. They're 100% compostable or recyclable, so I don't feel too bad about them. Also, do you have your own container big enough for pizza slices that also fits in your purse? I don't.

UNNECESSARY WASTE #4: Barely-used crayons
Take crayons home with you
Success rate: n/a
Annoyance factor: Low; you don’t have to talk to anyone.
Benefits: I've been asking at restaurants lately, and if they give your kids new, individually-packaged crayons, they're going to throw them out if you leave them on the table. Take them with you! Or better yet, say “no thank you” because you brought your own. Now, if they bring over a cup of already-used crayons, they are an awesome restaurant who knows what’s up. In this case, don’t steal their drawing implements! ;)

eating out, kidsMelissa Colonno
ten first steps to reducing household waste

one. // Use what you ALREADY own.
Being “eco-friendly” is trendy. There are stores that will sell you many things to help you go forth on your “zero-waste” journey. Some of these things are very useful (metal straws). Some of these things are beautiful but not necessary (Wreck jars). Use up the things you already own. Using items that are already in your life is always better than supporting the manufacturing of new materials. Even if those companies are sustainable and ethical. Just a few examples of many:

  • There are some health reasons to avoid using plastic for food, but you can still find other uses for the plastic containers lying around your house. Use them to organize toys, or screws and other hardware.

  • If you’re having a party, don’t buy new decorations; decorate with what you have!

  • Shop your closet before buying new clothes. You probably have forgotten about some of the things you own.

  • Break out your grandma’s china. It should be used more than once a year!

  • Have you kids make art projects with “trash” instead of buying new art supplies.


two. // Buy LESS and buy USED.
The cold, hard truth is that the world is against us in this crusade. It might change in the future, but for now we live in a disposable economy and it’s incredible hard to avoid having trash come into your life. The best way to create less waste is to just consume less. When you need or want something, first shop your house. Maybe you have something like it that you’ve forgotten about. If not, ask around. Maybe you can borrow it or get it for cheap from someone you know. If that fails, buy it used. There are lots of online or local consignment options.

Food is obviously a semi-exception to this point because you have to buy some amount of food. It’s still a good area to think about buying less (statistics about wasted food are crazy!) but when talking about shopping for food, this is an area it’s more important to consider the packaging…

three. // If you have to buy, CONSIDER the PACKAGING and the MATERIAL.
Best choice = buy without packaging.
Better choice = buy with compostable packaging.
Good choice = buy in paper, glass, or aluminum packaging.
Less than ideal choice = buy in recyclable plastic packaging.
Worst choice = buy in non-recyclable packaging.

Packaging is pretty easy to “rate” but the material of the product can be harder. But the key question to ask yourself is “what is going to happen to this when I can’t use it anymore?” For this reason, I try to buy mostly clothing of organic fibers and toys made of wood or paper. And you always want to think about the quality of the item. If it’s really high-quality plastic that won’t likely ever break or is something you’ll use for years and years to come, then you should buy it!

four. // COMPOST and seek out COMPOSTABLE items.
Food scraps, brown paper bags, pizza boxes, wine corks, tissues, tissue paper, paper towels, paper napkins, toothpicks, bamboo = all compostable. Many cities, including Denver, have city-wide compost collection. It’s pretty ridiculous that in Denver we have to pay for it yet trash is free. However, the bin is large, so you can certainly share with several neighbors to defray the cost. Backyard compost is always an option too; look for free 101 classes at your local library or through the city.

If you need a single-use option, try to find one that’s compostable. It’s easy to order food “for here” at a coffee shop or restaurant and then pick it up off the plate with a compostable napkin. Much better than getting a plastic container! However, you should always try to use reusables before turning to compostable paper products. Paper towels, plates, tissues, etc. all take a lot of resources to manufacture and ship. This makes them less ideal for the environment.

five. // Develop a “rag system.”
In our house, we use different-sized towels or cloths for all kinds of tasks:

  • Towels are for kitchen clean up.

  • Large rags are for one-time messes like Zoë’s food on the floor.

  • Small cloths are used as baby wipes, tissues, or as toilet paper.

  • We use tablecloths and cloth napkins.

  • Cloth produce bags are for grocery shopping and taking food on the go.

After use, baby wipes (and cloth diapers) go in a wet bag and all the other soiled cloths are thrown in a big laundry basket in our unused downstairs shower. Everything gets washed on the “Sanitize” cycle in the washing machine and is used again. Our towels are an assortment of dish towels, and all the smaller cloths are cut-up old clothes. When I am out of the house I will sometimes throw away a “baby wipe” cloth. I figure the old clothing was destined for the landfill anyway, so at least it got a few more uses.

This is our system, but there are lots of ways you could do it depending on your family’s needs and your house/washing set-up. Also, everyone has a different tolerance for and understanding of germs…do what you’re comfortable with but I’m sure you can come up with a system that works for you!

six. // Use CLOTH BAGS and a WASHABLE MARKER at the grocery store.
Stock pile a whole bunch of cloth bags to use at the grocery for produce and bulk items. These can be bags you have bought (I, personally, avoid bags made of synthetic fiber, but that’s a personal choice), bags you already have (I have several cloth bags that purses or other items came in like TOMS shoes), or you can make your own if you’re a sewer (make me some too, please!).

The washable marker is to write the PLU number on your cloth bags for bulk items. The cashier can then see it clearly and it’ll wash right out in the laundry. If your grocery requires you to print out stickers for bulk items, your hands are probably tied, but you can always ask!

(A more “advanced” option is to take your own jars to places like Whole Foods that will tare them for you, but I don’t recommend tackling this if you’re just starting out.)

seven. // RECYCLE but only minimally. REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPAIR and ROT are all better choices!
Recycling is not the answer, particularly when it comes to plastic. Plastic gets downgraded each time it’s recycled and there’s not much of a market for thin/cheap plastic. I often hear people complain that their recycling bin is overflowing every week and they wish it got picked up by the city more often than their trash is collected. I agree with this to a certain extent, but if your recycling bin is super full, then you should still take a closer look at your materials consumption. Recyclables often end up in the landfill.

eight. // ANALYZE your waste.
Everyone is different and we all consume different types of products. Check out your own trash and recycling bins to see what you are throwing away on a regular basis. Ask yourself if you could procure those items in a different or better way.

Examples from my house:

  • Yogurt containers. Even though I was buying the big tubs of yogurt, we’d still have one in our recycle bin each week. As a first response, I started buying yogurt in a glass jar. That helped from the waste perspective, but it was expensive. I then started making my own yogurt which has worked really well for us. And it’s really not that hard!

  • Bread. We eat a lot of bread, and it was our main source of plastic bags. I used to occasionally bake bread, but now I’ve found a recipe that I can make weekly to keep us stocked. If I don’t get my act together to bake, I try to get to a local bakery and buy a package-free loaf.

nine. // Don’t be too SELF-CONSCIOUS.
Eighty years ago, people would have thought the idea of using something one time and then throwing it out was absolutely bonkers. But, today, it’s the norm. When you challenge the norm, people sometimes get a bit confused. When I first started asking for drinks without straws people looked at me like I had three heads. But now, they often reply, “oh of course, we don’t use straws anymore!”

The grocery worker often thinks I’m a bit weird when I ask them to put deli meat or salmon in my Tupperware, but then, sometimes, they have an “ah-ha” moment when they’ll respond “oh wow, that’s a good idea!” My family has rolled their eyes at me more than a few times, but I have observed subtle changes in their own behavior over the years. If refusing single-use packaging is important to you, just be friendly and polite, and usually you’ll get a decent response. Sometimes you’ll get a dirty look or a “no,” but just keep on trying!

ten. // Remember THIS:
All the plastic ever created still exists. It won’t go away in a period of time that we can conceptualize. That one fact keeps me up at night, but has helped me dramatically change my behaviors of consumption!

Now, go forth and reduce your waste. Fist bump, friends!