Plastic Waste From Takeout Is a Big Problem—Here's What You Can Do About It

These tips will help you reduce food-related disposable plastic.

zero waste food kit
A zero waste food kit can help reduce plastic waste.

Getty Images / igishevamaria

The next time you are tempted to order takeout or buy food and drinks on the go, you might want to hold off. The results of a major new study may be enough to startle you into adjusting your consumption habits, as they reveal significant amounts of global plastic litter linked to takeout food products.

The study, which came from the University of Cadiz, Spain, and was published in the journal Nature Sustainability, analyzed 12 million pieces of litter collected from oceans and rivers, shorelines, the sea floor, and open waters. Researchers found that 80% of items were plastic, and nearly half (44%) was related to takeout food and drinks—specifically, single-use bags, plastic bottles, food containers, and food wrappers. Other items included plastic caps and lids and disposable cutlery. 

Lead study author Dr. Carmen Morales told The BBC, "It was shocking to find out that bags, bottles, food containers and cutlery together with wrappers account for almost half of the human-made objects on a global scale." Discarded synthetic fishing nets and ropes were another problem researchers noted, although more so in the open ocean, not along or near shorelines. 

Based on their analysis, the researchers made three suggestions: 1) Replace takeout food and drink containers with materials that are more readily biodegradable; 2) introduce bans on avoidable plastics; and 3) use deposit refund schemes to incentivize reusable/refillable products. 

Until that day comes, however, it's up to us as consumers to change the way we choose products in order to avoid unnecessary plastic packaging—and there is no better time to get started than now, as Plastic-Free July kicks off.

If you have not yet heard of it, Plastic-Free July is an annual month-long challenge to reduce one's use of single-use plastic and to discover alternatives to purchasing, consuming, and transporting food (among other items). Keeping this new study in mind, here are some practical suggestions for reducing takeout-related single-use plastics in one's day-to-day life. 

1. Cook at Home

The simplest way to eliminate plastic takeout waste is to cook from scratch. When you take time to prepare your own food, and then either eat it at home or transport it in reusable containers, you'll find it quite easy to have a zero-waste meal. This, of course, requires spending time preparing food in advance, but it has the added benefits of saving money and generally being healthier.

2. Buy Good Containers

Invest in good-quality stainless steel and/or glass food storage containers. These make all the difference when it comes to storing and taking homemade food on the go because the more convenient it is, the more inclined you'll be to do it. Glass lets you see what's in your fridge; stainless steel lets you freeze the contents easily and even sometimes reheat directly on the stove. You don't have to worry about acidic foods degrading plastic and causing chemicals to leach out. Buy insulated containers to carry hot or cold drinks, soups, curries, salads, and more. Use glass mason jars to store salad dressings and other sauces.

3. Call Ahead

If takeout is unavoidable, call the restaurant instead of placing an online order. There are two main questions to ask: First, will they let you bring in your own containers? You may have to show up ahead of time to hand the containers over for filling. (Rules around this tightened up with the pandemic, but are starting to loosen again in places.)

Second, what are the takeout containers made of? If the answer is Styrofoam or another form of plastic, gently explain that you're looking for a greener option and will have to go elsewhere until the business changes its choice of containers. There are plenty of excellent paper-based options now available, so there's really no reason for a takeout restaurant to continue using non-biodegradable packaging.

4. Carry a Zero Waste Food Kit

Everyone should have a zero waste food kit that's easily accessible in the trunk of their car, in a backpack, or in a bicycle pannier. The kit should include a few food-related basics—cutlery, cloth bag and napkin, water bottle, coffee mug, metal straw, food storage container, etc. These implements will allow you to refuse some or all of the single-use plastic items that you encounter on a daily basis.

5. Say No to Bottled Beverages

Those fridges full of chilled sweetened drinks can be hugely appealing on a hot summer day, but they're best avoided from a pollution perspective. Instead of contributing to the enormous problem of plastic bottles invading waterways, make it a habit to fill a reusable water bottle every day before leaving the house. An insulated one will keep your drink cold and refreshing for many hours.

6. Choose Packaging Carefully

With food wrappers being in the top four offenders for takeout-related waste, it's worth paying attention to the way in which your takeout food (and groceries) are packaged. Opt for paper-based packaging whenever possible, rather than plastic. Plastic wrappers are non-recyclable because they are thin films with little value for recyclers—and even if your store has a take-back bin for plastic films, it's probably a scam, as reported last month in Treehugger.

7. No More Grocery Bags

Commit to refusing all single-use grocery bags. Stock your car with sturdy, washable cloth bags or bins that you take into the store or restaurant every time you shop or pick up food. If you forget bags in the car, put your groceries back in the cart and load them up once you're back at your vehicle—or put them in loose and grab bags once you get home.

These efforts may seem small when considered on their own, but put together and embraced by people around the world, they have the potential to add up to real change. More importantly, doing these things will signal to business owners, politicians, and policymakers that the time for change has come—and that legislative efforts to reduce plastic waste should reflect study findings, rather than focus on arbitrary items (like earbuds, stir sticks, and straws) that do not represent the majority of plastic waste.

View Article Sources
  1. Morales-Caselles, Carmen, et al. "An Inshore–Offshore Sorting System Revealed from Global Classification of Ocean Litter." Nature Sustainability, vol. 4, no. 6, 2021, pp. 484-493, doi:10.1038/s41893-021-00720-8