Chow Down Without Choking the Planet

The answer is a circular food packaging system.

Workers hand over restaurant food to delivery worker. Amsterdam article on eco-packaging and sustainability. Article by Beth Massa for Table Sage

Businesses and eaters are eager for more sustainable options around food packaging. Systemic change will be required to take eco-packaging to the next level.

When you’re tired and hungry, there’s hardly anything more welcome than the ring of a doorbell and a delivery person standing there with a giant stack of pizzas, or noodles, or Indian food.

But as you unwrap the aluminium foil from your precious stacks of naan and pry the lids off those little white boxes of aloo gobi and saag paneer, a little dilemma scoots up next to you on the couch. On the one hand, there’s the supreme satisfaction of a perfect mouthful of expertly prepared food. But there’s also a sense of creeping guilt, that you’ve somehow morally failed.

Maybe it’s because takeout costs more than cooking something yourself. Or because you’re off-loading a laborious task onto someone else— someone very likely less well-off than you. Or maybe it’s because of the pile of trash you know you’ll have to face at meal’s end.

“Globally, we produce millions of tons of single-use, on-the-go food packaging waste every year”

I’ve certainly felt it, even though I love to cook. I love the creativity of it, the mystery of flavors combining, the diving into different cuisines and their cultural histories. But I also love prepared food. I love food trucks. I love bustling, noisy food halls. I love that I’m able to tuck into authentic, expertly-prepared cuisine from all around the world from the comfort of my own couch. I may, in fact, love it just a bit more than cooking myself.

And it turns out there are a lot of reasons to feel good about paying someone else to do the cooking. For one thing, restaurants and takeout counters are how millions of people (many of them immigrants) make a living, doing something they’re uniquely qualified to do. The portion sizes are also a good thing— we tend to eat less when we dine out.

It’s also, maybe counter-intuitively, less wasteful. Taking out or dining out is indeed more expensive than making a meal at home, but for economic reasons, commercial kitchens are much more efficient than home kitchens. We also tend to eat nearly everything we order, so that very little of the prepared food we buy goes to waste. Compare that to the fresh fruit and veg we bring home to cook, about 20% of which ends up moldy, shrunken, and wilted in the trash or compost.

The packaging, though, is another story. At the end of that scrumptious Indian meal, you’ve probably got leftovers, and you’re excited about maybe taking some vindaloo and adding a bit of yogurt to it for tomorrow’s lunch. In a day or so, the contents of all those little white boxes will be depleted— and you’ll be left with a plastic hangover.

“Around 40-60% of plastic waste is food packaging”

And so will countless others. Globally, we produce millions of tons of single-use, on-the-go food packaging waste every year. Most of it ends up in landfills or incinerators, with a tiny percentage being “recycled,” which is often just code for being shipped to Asia. By enjoying the food we love, we’re also choking the planet with food packaging waste.

We can’t have this. As much as we enjoy takeout, we can’t keep contributing to such colossal waste. It’s an unacceptable consequence, and it’s not primarily our fault. It’s a systemic problem. The linear system managing food packaging waste is failing us. And if we solve it, we basically solve the plastic pollution crisis: around 40-60% of plastic waste is food packaging.

For all their seductive promise, compostables and bioplastics are not the answer. There isn’t a broad enough system in place to manage them, so while these more expensive materials can become compost, in practice they’re just another waste stream. It’s a different flavor of the same problem: the burden of packaging waste is placed squarely on the shoulders of consumers, rather than the manufacturers and distributors that created the system in the first place.

The real answer to managing food packaging waste is reuse. What’s needed is a circular economy approach, in a thousand small circles.

“Durable food packaging could be delivered, collected, washed, and sanitized, then redistributed locally”

At the neighborhood or community level, food proprietors, packaging producers and consumers need to share the responsibility for packaging waste. This is not a pipe dream, and certainly nowhere near as big a logistical challenge as, say, rural electrification, or municipal water systems, or even the dozens of different services competing to deliver your food in the first place.

Durable food packaging could be delivered, collected, washed, and sanitized, then redistributed locally, in order to keep transportation costs and CO2 emissions to a minimum. The water used for washing can also be circular. Heat can be extracted, and detergents and food particles filtered out, enabling it to be used again. The technology to do all of this is already present, reliable, and straightforward. What’s really needed is the will to shift our thinking, and for large logistical organizations to take on the task of designing a new system.

There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to eat out when we want and take our leftovers home, or pick up lunch at a local food cart, or have dinner delivered, without creating mountains of packaging waste. But to make this happen, we need a sustainable model to replace the broken linear system that exists today. A circular model rooted in reuse enables us to celebrate our communities, cities, and neighborhoods through the food we all enjoy, while achieving a system that achieves it all with no damage to the environment.

We don’t have to feel bad about eating out or ordering in— it has a lot going for it, but it needs to be fixed.