Takeaway meals are a pandemic survival technique, however they’re additionally a serious strong waste drawback
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. was passing through more than 100 million plastic items and 120 billion disposable cups a year every day. Add to that the mussels and pizza boxes, the plastic containers that have replaced the old-school Chinese take-out box in so many cases, and so many other forms of prepackaged food packaging – 78% of single-use packaging comes from restaurants, according to an expert – and you speak of piles of rubbish, many of which are not directly recyclable and many of which could theoretically be recycled but cannot be recycled.
Less than 9% of the plastic we use is ever recycled, China has stopped buying much of the waste from the US it bought once, and many types of plastic can only be recycled once or twice, so that by itself Conscientiously diligent recyclers can only do this a great deal.
Composting sounds like a promising solution, and for food waste it is a lot. (Seriously, compost your food if you have access to facilities.) Compostable packaging, however, creates new problems. They are often resource intensive to manufacture, and while PLA products based on corn degrade and disappear in a suitable composting facility, they do not actually produce compost with its benefits. The “in an appropriate composting facility” part of that phrase is also crucial: only a few hundred composting facilities in the country are equipped for post-consumer food waste, and only a fraction of that is equipped for compostable packaging.
Compostable packaging can also lead to other problems. Ordinary, inexperienced people – even those who really care about getting it right – cannot always tell which products are compostable, which are recyclable and which are not, leading to contamination and for both recycling and composting facilities causing serious problems. If a recycling batch contains too many non-recyclable items, the entire batch can be declared contaminated and unusable and thrown away. And since what is recyclable or compostable varies from place to place, it will depend on the facilities that process these waste streams and it is up to the individual to study how which packaging can be removed in their specific areas.
So … plastic recycling is something of a mirage and compostable packaging doesn’t solve the problem. What next?
Think of source reduction
A big part of the answer is that it is less about what you do with the containers and more about how the containers were originally made. Ideally, this means reusable containers, but there is an obvious problem: coffee shops that give you a small discount for bringing a reusable mug are reasonably common, but few restaurants take them out in reusable containers for take away, let alone for delivery .
But! The services begin by getting that in place.
GO Box, based in Portland, Oregon, is a subscription service that offers reusable packaging in more than 100 restaurants, grocery carts, and other places to get groceries. Then you send the packages back to drop sites. According to GO Box, the use of its containers has replaced more than 200,000 one-way containers or 16 tons of garbage.
Green GrubBox is a similar service that operates in Seattle. Exist Reusable operates in the Los Angeles area. Shipping is in San Francisco. At Dispatch Goods, which works with restaurant partners such as the (delicious) salad chain Mixt and the James Beard Award-winning Zuni, CEO Lindsey Hoell says: “We have now saved over 40,000 containers from entering the waste stream which, if stacked, would be taller than 5 Salesforce Towers. “
In Boston and Somerville, Massachusetts, the fast-casual restaurant Grainmaker has its own reusable container program, which owner Chris Freeman has prevented from recycling Works Massachusetts 2,100 pounds of single-use packaging is used per restaurant location per year.
These services remain localized and collect a fraction of the take-away food packaging waste in these areas, but it is an important advancement. However, if reusable containers are not an option, the principle remains that it very much depends on how much waste is generated and how containers are made.
In 1992, John Schall wrote a working paper at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Management that assessed the hierarchy of waste management taking into account both production systems and waste disposal itself. His research, drawing data from the New York City Waste Stream, pointed directly to the importance of source reduction. “T.The environmental impact of the production of packaging (or other things) from primary / new goods was many times greater than the environmental impact of the production of packaging from primary / new goods Secondary or recycling materials, ”he now explains. “And while the solid waste system brought environmental benefits by recycling and composting materials instead of burying them or incinerating them, they were much less than the environmental benefits of making things from secondary materials versus primary materials.
“In other words, recycling an aluminum can was better for the environment and cheaper for the solid waste system than throwing it in a landfill. However, the benefits of making an aluminum can from recycled aluminum were vastly better than making an aluminum can from bauxite mining. “
Fast forward to the present, and Schall is now a restaurant owner who ran a big takeaway business even before the pandemic. In his taquerias in El Jefe, Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he draws on lessons learned from his previous career in waste disposal research, choosing recycled molded pulpboard containers for most of the menu items. The containers are compostable, but the environmental benefits of making them are independent of what the customer does with them. He notes that there are no fully recycled plastic take-out bins available.
Think big – and small
However, identifying green options takes work and costs more. “We developed this concept with the aim of being sustainable and environmentally friendly. However, it’s easy to just access your online ordering portal and order the cheaper deli container or to-go container, ”said Brian Corbey, Executive Chef at Boston, Lulu Green, a sustainable coffee shop and juice bar across from The Boston Globe.
As an individual consumer, you can also ask restaurants to cut out plastic utensils, spices and straws whenever possible in order to pull a surprising amount of single-use plastic out of the waste stream and help the restaurants themselves. “Believe it or not, restaurants can save thousands of dollars this way. It’s a win-win situation,” Michael Oshman of the Green Restaurant Association told The Boston Globe.
Restaurants that get to work and make the most environmentally friendly choices (from poor selections) should be rewarded, but we can also try to encourage improvement on a larger scale. That may mean asking our favorite restaurants to invest in better packaging – politely, of course, and with the intention of rewarding those who do so not only with business but also with word of mouth. It can also mean encouraging our local and state governments to pass laws that encourage greener packaging.
While this isn’t a problem with custom solutions, it pays to be mindful of the sheer amount of waste that can be created by ordering a family for problem-packed takeaways. Finding a balance between public health during the pandemic, helping our local restaurants, and reducing the environmental impact is a daunting task. But in the end that has to be the goal.