Takeout Quandary

Avoiding styrofoam and single-use plastics is a challenge at the best of times, but the Covid pandemic has made it even tougher, as many of us are trying to support our local restaurants by ordering takeout/delivery food.

I am doing a survey to find out if people are willing to pay extra for backyard-compostable takeout containers as an alternative to plastic or styrofoam. So far, a lot of people in my local eco groups have said they would be willing. Amounts range from 50 cents extra to 10 dollars extra! Obviously folks care about this. I myself would be willing to pay about $5 extra.

I plan to share my findings with local restaurants, and work with them to get backyard-compostable containers as an option.

Here are my survey questions; feel free to use them to poll people in your area.

1 — Would you be willing to pay extra for paper or other backyard-compostable containers if it were an option?

2 — If yes, how much extra would you be willing to pay per order? (enter a dollar amount or range)

In my previous post “Where Green Meets Thrift,” I talk about how great it is when the eco thing and the thrifty thing are one and the same. (Buying clothes at thrift stores instead of buying new is one common example of this.)

The takeout-container thing, alas, is not an example of a situation where green meets thrift. At least not right now. Containers made from cardboard, bagasse (sugarcane waste), and other backyard-compostable materials tend to be priced many times as high as plastic or styrofoam containers.

Plastic and styrofoam are cheap in part because the manufacturers and sellers don’t have to pay the full cost of their product. I’m referring to the cost on the back end. The cost to towns and cities of cleaning up those containers when they become litter; the environmental cost as they end up in landfill where they may take hundreds of years to break down, leaching toxins all the while.

Since green does not yet intersect thrift when it comes to takeout containers, those of us who care, and are in a position to do so, can help by being willing to pay more for cardboard or other household-compostable options.

An idea I have often suggested to fellow eco-minded folks is making containers out of nontoxic “invasive” plants such as reeds or cogon grass. I have not yet delved into detailed research on this possibility, but I think it’s worth exploring, not only as an environmentally friendly container option but also as an opportunity for investors, and as a potentially high-demand niche for your local manufacturing sector.

Papyrus, the thick paperlike material used by ancient Egyptians as a writing surface, was made by laying sliced reeds perpendicular to one another and pressing them flat. Supposedly the reeds contained a natural adhesive that, when dry, kept the reeds together as a sheet.

I have no doubt that the plant kingdom offers many other potential solutions to our takeout quandary as well.

Another solution: If you order quite regularly from some establishment(s), and have a good rapport with them, you might ask them if you can give them a package of biodegradable/backyard-compostable containers to keep on hand for your orders. Or even better: If you can spare the money, buy them several packages of such containers so they can offer them to other eco-minded customers and see how many customers end up choosing the eco option.

That said, the real place where green meets thrift is our own reusable containers. If we could convince restaurants to stop being so afraid of lawsuits (resulting from some customer getting sick from their own inadequately cleaned container), this would be the greenest and thriftiest solution.

Or restaurants could send out their own reusable containers for takeout and delivery. Customers would pay a deposit on the containers.

When I lived in Japan, a common sight in neighborhoods was noodle-delivery guys on motor scooters. They’d bring your ramen or soba to your door in real, reusable bowls with reusable lids. After eating, you’d leave the dishes outside your door and the delivery guy would be back within an hour or so to retrieve them.

This might not work in most parts of the USA for various reasons. But my point is, we should be looking into this topic and finding alternatives to all this plastic and styrofoam we’re generating. It’s literally a growing problem.