Take out food containers are mostly trash and cannot be recycled due to mixed materials and contamination. The good news is that it is legal and super easy to get zero waste takeout from most ANY restaurant in California!! This way you can get your food to eat at home on real plates with real cutlery and not create any trash. Read on to learn how!
In the picture above I am picking up a pizza in as Zero Waste way as possible from Jake's of Sunnyvale -- the pizza goes into an aluminum pizza container I made from two 20" pizza pans. The paired set of aluminum pans then goes into a reusable pizza bag that keeps the pizza warm -- watch out, a fresh pizza makes the aluminum pans very hot (and sterile)! I bike it all home in my covered all purpose bike trailer. I use a clean sheet to line the inside when carrying food.
Here is a sequence of pictures I took at a different pizzeria that show off the pans I use.
I tried to find a couple of pans with a deeper dish but ended up bending the edges of one of these very large pans to create a lid with deeper clearance. I've gotten pizza from 5 different local pizzerias dozens of times in my area and they all are very accommodating and appreciate the business. Now I just need to find a pizzeria that makes a whole wheat pizza from organic ingredients...
While my pizza pickup technique requires some specialized equipment, getting zero waste takeout from most restaurants is pretty easy. Below is one important tip, one important factor, and three simple options to getting zero waste takeout from just about any restaurant.
Important tip: always call or email ahead to make sure the restaurant in question can handle your zero waste option. This is a great marketing opportunity for zero waste!
Here is a sample email you can send a restaurant or use as a script on the phone:
Hi! We would like to get food from your establishment without creating trash so we can save our environment for our kids and future generations (see ZeroW.org).
Does your business allow zero waste food pickup/take out? (No disposables - plastics in particular.)
Here is a link to the California and Santa Clara County Food Code that allows this and stipulates the requirements: https://cpd.sccgov.org/ab-619-retail-food-reusable-containers-multiuse-utensils
Other businesses in Sunnyvale that support purchasing food in a consumer’s own containers include: Kabul Afghan Cuisine, The Gurkha Kitchen, China Wok, Jake’s of Sunnyvale, PF Chang’s, Katana Sushi & Sake, Ginger Cafe, Thai Spoons, Chelokababi, Safeway, and Zanotto’s.
Please let us know. Thanks!
The one important factor is the restaurant not be a typical fast food restaurant that only serves into its own disposable containers due to inflexible corporate policies. Restaurants, particularly local restaurants (not chain restaurants), that normally serve onto their own reusable plates are usually the best and most accommodating.
The three simple options are:
The restaurant has a safe and cross contamination free method to get food into your container -- like simply dropping it in. This is the most convenient option for customers and really is quite easy. Most restaurants need to know how to handle many other items that are much more dangerous than your clean containers -- like raw meat -- and they should be good at washing surfaces or utensils that may have touched your container. ~90% of the places I have gotten takeout from use this option.
The restaurant serves its food onto its own plates and puts them on a table where the customer can use utensils and/or their own spatula to transfer the food to their take home reusable containers. This is more work for the customer but super easy for the restaurant. ~10% of the places I've gone have required this and it is usually an option at every restaurant that serves onto its own dishes.
The restaurant takes your reusables and washes them thru its high speed commercial dish washing machine then serves into your containers. <1% of the places I've patronized asked for this option.
For food other than pizza, we use standard polyethylene quart size deli containers or large 3 quart polypropylene containers to get take out Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Persian, and others instead of using disposable cardboard/plastic or disposable plastic clamshell containers. Polyethylene and polypropylene plastics are the safest to use with food, don't break easily (like when carrying by bike), are easy to clean, and are also somewhat recyclable at the end of their life.
Remember to tell the restaurant you don't want any disposable condiments, napkins, bags, or plasticware. It is amazing how they automatically toss this trash at you. If you do need condiments, bring some small containers to hold these waste free.
Here links to the laws covering consumer provided containers. Please see:
Here is my current list of restaurants near Sunnyvale, CA that support zero waste takeout. Also, I generously tip restaurants that allow me to pick up food in a zero waste manner.
My mom made some cushy cozies for my 1 quart wide mouth mason jars so I can now carry these jars safely on my bike without breaking them. I used this new system to get takeout from The Gurkha Kitchen in Sunnyvale. Yay!
Hope you find these tips useful and are able to get zero waste takeout too!
If you like this article, please consider joining or donating to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Even if you don't bike, they do more to reduce waste and climate change than most any other local organization (think globally, act locally).