Yes, Takeout Generates Obscene Amounts of Waste

That's why we should be cooking more, not trying to repackage it.

containers of takeout food

@opkirilka via Twenty20

Food critic Tom Sietsma is worried about how much trash his takeout food orders have generated over the past six months. In an article for the Washington Post, Sietsma shared a photo of his takeout waste from roughly 30 orders and lamented that his problem is shared by his fellow Americans. 

He wrote, "Blame the global health crisis for our Godzilla-size appetite for takeout. Few of us are equipped or inclined to cook three meals a day for ourselves, and takeout and delivery have come to our rescue on a colossal scale." In the second quarter of 2020, market research company NPD Group said that digital orders spiked 127 percent compared to the year before, and Grubhub's number of active diners grew by 35 percent.

The result is more trash than most of us can comprehend. Sietsma's own heap was enough to fill two recycling bins, nearly 100 gallons of space. He cited National Geographic's estimate that over 36 billion disposable knives, forks, and spoons are used annually in the U.S. alone: "Laid end to end, they could wrap around the globe 139 times." A whopping 282 billion napkins are handed out every year, and restaurants are apparently responsible for 78% of all disposable packaging. It's a crisis of colossal proportions that needs to be examined.

Sietsma's idea was to ask food experts about new, cutting-edge designs and concepts for repackaging takeout food. There are some decent ones out there, such as restaurants opting for stronger, thicker containers that allow for reuse at home (although people's Tupperware drawers have limited space). Others are moving toward online checklists that allow shoppers to opt out of all the excess packaging they won't use. Ordering larger quantities of food that can be eaten over several days at home, instead of placing individual daily orders, can cut down on waste, too. (This seems to defeat the point of takeout, though, which I've always thought was a way to fix a last-minute lack of food. Why not just plan out fast home-cooked/assembled meals if you're able to plan out takeout orders?)

There was a brief mention of restaurants exploring the option of reusable containers, presumably requiring a deposit and sanitizing thoroughly between uses, but this does not seem a popular option – whether it's because of the upfront cost to restaurant owners, lack of third-party businesses who could do the pick-up and sanitizing work (such as GO Box or the Tiffin Project in Brussels), or customers' reluctance to do anything that could be unsafe by COVID-19 standards, despite evidence that reusables are fine to use.

What About Cooking?

These are all fair suggestions, but the whole time I was reading Sietsma's piece, I kept thinking, "Why not just cook a bit more?" That strikes me as the simplest, most straightforward solution to all this waste. Sure, there are nights when you need an emergency dinner, when you're running so late or feeling so sick or trying to do so much that takeout is the only way to put food in your belly. But many other orders could likely be averted by stocking the pantry better, by having certain ingredients on hand for some quick and easy last-minute recipes, or even pre-made meals in the freezer.

I can tell you that perspective on takeout shifts drastically when (a) you live in a town where there are so few restaurants (and all are closed on Mondays) that you just learn to do it yourself, and (b) you have some kids and it's impossible to have a restaurant bill under $75. On those nights when single me (living in Toronto) would've ordered Thai or sushi, mom me puts on my boots and heads to the store because I know I can buy ingredients for a quick pasta or stir-fry for one-quarter of what I'd pay for crappy pizza. Do I feel like doing it? No, but I do it anyway because I know I'll save $55 – and there's so much less waste

We've been saying this for years on Treehugger, that innovative packaging designs will not fix this trash problem in any kind of significant way. What we need is a whole new food culture. I was hoping so much that that would be Sietsma's conclusion – that life in lockdown taught him how much easier and simpler it can be to feed oneself, that he did not need takeout food to survive, that it would become a once-in-a-while treat rather than a weeknight staple. But no, he, like so many other Americans, seems eager to perpetuate takeout culture, likely because it's convenient. Unfortunately, convenience always comes at a cost, whether it's to one's health or adding to the overflowing landfill site. 

If we're serious about tackling this waste and cutting down on the resources required to make single-use packaging (green or not), then all we have to do is start cooking. The tools are in your kitchen already. You can start tonight if you want.