If you’re a dedicated diner who often partakes of takeout (or can’t quite finish a dine-in dinner and needs a to-go box) you’ve likely noticed many local spots are using recyclable plastic or cardboard containers. But a fair number are still using Styrofoam or polystyrene – major recycling rejects — because of their affordability. Startups especially, who need to get in the black fast, and therefore can’t get “in the green” — as in the sustainability game at first.
What’s so bad about Styrofoam and polystyrene? Well, they’re light and crumble easily, so end up in our woods, rivers and prairies. Both breakdown into microscopic styrenes and other harmful chemicals that stay in the soil and water. Even when they’re in landfills, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says styrenes leach into our drinking water. This can cause liver, kidney or circulatory system problems.
The EPA also says food and food packaging materials make up almost half of all municipal solid waste. But the agency estimates carbon dioxide emissions would be cut dramatically if businesses and the public simply switch to sustainable packaging or constantly recycle their plastic waste.
Pizza places have pretty much always packaged their pies in cardboard boxes – easy to break down and add to your other mixed fiber recycling. For some eateries, the decision to pick packaging that’s environmentally-conscious is very much a conscious one. An informal survey of a half dozen CoMo restaurants offers some insight into why those who offer eco-friendly options do so.
Chef Ben Parks, co-owner of Barred Owl Butcher and Table, says, “We use biodegradable fiber containers that are made from bagasse, a fiber left over from the processing of sugarcane. We have used them since we opened.” This is certainly in keeping with Barred Owl’s “nose-to-tail” approach, where pretty much everything is “ear”-marked as usable (even pig ears). Parks says the restaurant also uses recyclable deli containers made from plastic.
For Chef Kimber Dean, co-owner of Nourish Cafe & Market, nourishing the planet was as important as nourishing her patrons. “All of our to-go containers, straws, napkins, etc. are compostable or recyclable,” she says. “Our in-house straws are metal, the bowls and plates are nontoxic. We have used these products since we opened.” She says the business wants to limit its waste and trash materials that hurt the earth. “We also compost through Bluebird Composting,” Dean says. “To-go utensils are compostable and catering items are recyclable.”
Other eateries that didn’t initially use recyclable containers may later make a decision to switch to them. This was the case for Addison’s and Sophia’s, according to co-owner Matt Jenne. “We use recyclable containers for our carryout and leftover needs. We switched to the recycle style several years ago to do our part for the environment. They are substantially the same form, factor and quality.” Jenne acknowledges the price may be a bit more, but says, “We think it's a good expense and our customers expect it.”
Tyler Spurgeon, new owner of Chris McD’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, also uses plastic containers that can be recycled. But he’s working on phasing in containers that are not only recyclable, but made from recyclable materials themselves. “I have begun using a brand called Earth Plus for my large to-goes,” he says. “I plan on switching to using all their stuff for my takeout, but it's been kind of hit and miss with getting them in.”
Sycamore is another establishment intent on upping its eco-friendly efforts. “We have always used recyclable to-go containers (cardboard),” Co-owner Jill Speake says. “We have been trying some compostable options lately.”
Many consumers today, particularly younger ones, are choosing to spend their dollars in spots where they approve of a company’s policies and practices. They want their money going to good global citizens, who share concern for the climate, support human rights and are generous with their charitable contributions. This trend has already spilled over into the dining industry. Consider people who refuse to eat at Chick-fil-A because of its history of donating to charities with anti-LGBTQ stances. Or people who boycott companies that practice what they perceive as inhumane methods of producing livestock, such concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
How about the future? Will more earth-friendly containers take over takeout? If enough diners “vote with their values” they might. But that could very well come at the cost of higher costs for our favorite flavors. Will diners be willing to pay? Some likely would. But knowing human nature, it’s more likely many of us will cave to what we crave and still patronize places even if they stick with styro.