Q. Dear Umbra,
Sometimes I ask for a to-go box when I’m eating out, but I’m always panged with environmental guilt when the server brings back a Styrofoam clamshell. But I hate wasting food, especially delicious restaurant food. Would it be better to leave my leftovers on my plate to be thrown away, or should I take them home at the cost of unrecyclable Styrofoam?
A. Dearest Rebecca,
What you’ve described is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. Throwing away food is a terrible waste of resources (and delicious restaurant dishes), but Styrofoam, aka polystyrene, is a hard-to-recycle, never-breaks-down landfill-filler made from fossil fuels. The outcome looks bleak indeed — except that I believe there’s a third way here you haven’t considered. Let’s think outside the to-go box.
Here’s my proposal: Simply take your own reusable containers with you when you dine. Voilà — you can turn yesterday’s dinner into tomorrow’s lunch, guilt- and Styrofoam-free. I can foresee only a couple of obstacles to pulling this off, and both can be dodged.
One, it’s possible a server might balk at filling your BYO takeout box for health code reasons. If so, just box up your leftovers yourself at the table; I can’t imagine anyone objecting to that.
Two, you must remember to actually bring your containers before you can use them. This might take a bit of practice, but I’m confident you can get in the habit, Rebecca. After all, many of us have trained ourselves to carry reusable coffee mugs and reusable shopping bags, and this is a logical next step. Collapsible containers like this one make it even easier.
If you do forget and find yourself in a DIYDDIYD predicament at the table: Take the leftovers home in the polystyrene, just this once. And use the opportunity to ask the restaurant to switch to something a bit better for the planet, such as compostable boxes. (If your guilt still demands penance, you could pick one of these Styrofoam-reuse art projects and bring new life to that takeout box.)
Most importantly, keep the bigger picture in mind: Where you dine and what you order matter too, not just what you carry your leftovers home in. Eating at a certified organic restaurant is an excellent choice if you can find one near you, and cutting back on meat is one of the best ways to shrink your environmental footprint.
Get Grist in your inbox