New California Law Helps Diners to Bring Their Own Containers

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It's still up to a restaurant to decide to fill them, but the law provides detailed guidelines on how to do it safely.

A new law has passed in California this summer that offers a procedure to restaurants for refilling customers' reusable containers. The practice is becoming more common, as more and more diners strive to reduce single-use plastic with their takeout orders or leftovers.

Accepting reusable containers, however, has always been risky. It's hard to know where they've been, how well they were cleaned, and what cross-contamination could potentially happen if brought into a commercial kitchen. It has always been up to a restaurant to decide if they want to accept people's containers.

The new Assembly Bill No. 619 does not force restaurants to accept reusable containers – the practice remains optional – but it does clarify the guidelines for how to deal with them. From Nation's Restaurants News,

"Restaurants must isolate the consumer-owned container from the serving surface or sanitize the surface after each filling. Restaurants must also have a written policy for prevention of cross-contamination available for inspectors."

Or, in the Takeout's words, "Restaurants have to treat customer Tupperware like a haz-mat spill, keeping it away from other surfaces in the kitchen or following its path with a spray bottle of disinfectant."

It remains to be seen whether or not the law will spur more clients to 'BYOC' when they go out for dinner, but the simple fact that it is being formally recognized as an option is encouraging. The more the use of reusables is normalized and accepted by businesses and institutions, the more we'll see them being used. And that change can't come soon enough.

We've said it many times on TreeHugger and we'll say it again: to get to a circular economy, we need to change our consumption culture. Biodegradable and compostable containers are not the option; they still represent resources being thrown away. But reusable containers that require only soap and water to wash between innumerable uses – that is a fine example of (1) designing out waste and pollution and (2) keeping materials in use for a prolonged period of time, two of the basic principles of the circular economy.

You don't have to live in California to act on this or wait for a similar bill to pass in your state. Every time I order food for takeout, I inform the restaurant on the phone that I'm bringing my own containers; this is almost never a problem. So go ahead and do it. It feels so good.