Ordering more takeout during the pandemic? Here’s how to reduce your food packaging footprint

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Food critic Tom Sietsema says that for three weeks, he saved every chopstick, container, paper napkin, and packaging scrap that came with his takeout. He says it all filled two recycling bins that could hold upwards of 100 gallons. Photo by Pxfuel

For food critics, dining out is literally their livelihood. But with restaurants shuttered or at best offering limited seating, what is an epicure to do? Takeout is one option. Critics can at least try the food, even without the service or the ambience. 

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema did that. He ordered takeout for about 10 meals per week, and he saved all the packaging for three weeks.

“I saved up every scrap, every chopstick, every flimsy paper napkin, every big and small container. … It filled two recycling bins that could hold upwards of 100 gallons,” he tells KCRW. 

He says he was shocked by all the packaging he accumulated. So he tried to reduce all that garbage. 

Some strategies for consumers:

- Ask the restaurant(s) what kind of packaging they use.
- Repurpose restaurant containers as much as you can.
- Bring your own bag when picking up your takeout.
- Don’t get condiments, plates and utensils from the restaurant. Food delivery apps such as DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats often let you opt out of that. “I think most of us, even if we’re busy, can wash a knife or a fork or a spoon. And food tastes better. I mean it’s more appealing to eat your dinner on a real plate, not paper. And eat it with utensils from your own home,” Sietsema says.
- Use as few resources as possible — that’s the ultimate goal. “Instead of ordering food for tonight, order it for a couple nights, so that each trip gets maximized.”

On the restaurant side, some are opting for more environmentally friendly packaging and/or containers that customers could actually return to the restaurant to be recycled. 

“People have to realize what it really costs to eat restaurant food. … I do see restaurant prices going up, and part of that will involve … that we’re not going back into restaurants any time soon. Takeout is definitely here to stay. And if we want good packaging, we’re going to have to pay for that too,” Sietsema says. 

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Credits

Guest:
Tom Sietsema - Washington Post food critic

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Nihar Patel, Rebecca Mooney