clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Takeout creates a lot of trash. It doesn't have to.

Can we deliver ourselves from packaging waste?

Even if you are one of the virtuous few who try to make a home-cooked meal every night, some nights cry out for takeout or delivery. Someone else taking care of dinner for you after a long day — it can be just what the doctor ordered.

And it’s popular: Food delivery is a $43 billion business in the US today. It is projected to grow significantly as it becomes easier to access and hungry consumers get accustomed to the new options — services that shop for you, deliver fully cooked meals from your favorite restaurants, and specialize in handy meal kits.

In many cases, not only are these services delivering food, they’re delivering lots of extra stuff: bags, boxes, wrapping, napkins, utensils, packs of condiments, colorful branded bits and bobs. Takeout can come with handfuls of ketchup or soy sauce packets, thick wads of napkins. Do you need all of that stuff? No one stops to ask — it just comes, and you get to deal with it.

Our problem with packaging and single-use items goes beyond the desire for an easy dinner. Packaging accounts for nearly 30 percent of all waste generated across the country according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and this doesn’t include other single-use items like disposable plates and utensils, diapers, junk mail, and paper towels. It piles up in our landfills, while manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of all of this stuff — often used for mere seconds — creates big greenhouse gas emissions.

On the positive side, the total amount of container and packaging waste in the US has been roughly flat since 2000, even with a growing population, and recycling is on the rise across the country. Recycling is no magic bullet, however. If you’ve heard the slogan, “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” there’s a reason “recycle” comes last.

“We really do need to prioritize reduce and reuse over recycling,” said Anne Krieghoff, solid waste and recycling program coordinator at the University of California Irvine. “Recycling is great to deal with a product once it’s already in your hand. But waste minimization is more important.”

Under Krieghoff’s watch, UC Irvine has reduced waste to the point that it now diverts 80 percent of its garbage from landfills. The goal: zero waste. UC Irvine isn’t alone: cities, counties, and large companies across the country are shooting for zero waste.

Step one: Minimize waste from the very beginning. Step two: Reuse what you have.

The University of California Merced campus is taking a reuse approach for to-go food containers from the dining halls, previously one of its biggest sources of waste.

Around a third of campus meals, about 350,000 are taken to-go every year. The difference now is that students take them in reusable containers that are returned, washed, and used again.

In 2010, UC Merced ran a pilot program to see how a reusable container system could work, whether students would be interested at all, and what challenges might arise. The problem wasn’t getting people to use the system — students liked the idea and adopted it quickly.

“The biggest issue was, how do we collect this many containers,” said Julie Sagusay, food services manager at UC Merced.

The program was so popular, the dining halls had to figure out how to handle all of the dirty containers, clean them, and get them back out for use.

Growing up in California’s Central Valley, Sagusay admits that recycling and thinking about sustainability just wasn’t part of the culture at the time, but it’s not hard to pick up.

“Sustainability is something that once you catch wind of it, once you understand it, it becomes embedded in your personality,” said Sagusay.

Watch the video above featuring Anne Krieghoff and Julie Sagusay to learn more about how dropping our single-use habits can help us stop climate change.

Learn more about how the food we eat and the food we waste affects climate change, and what we can do about it, at