How to take waste out of takeout COVID-19

How to take the waste out of takeout

Zero waste takeout during and after coronavirus (COVID-19)

Who doesn’t crave a pizza from their favorite restaurant at the moment? It’s the ultimate comfort food when the world around us seems almost unrecognizable due to COVID-19. 

The pizza box is waste
The ultimate comfort food.
Photo by Alexandra Gorn on Unsplash

So it’s no surprise that we’re all continuing to get takeout, for various reasons:

  • To support your local restaurants that are only allowed to serve takeout at the moment – yeay!
  • Because you’re tired of cooking – no judgement! (This is true in our case; we usually get takeout on a weekend night…) 
  • Because getting your favorite grub frankly helps you keep sane during these crazy times – fair enough.

Incidentally, meal delivery services saw year-over-year growth of 24 percent in March 2020 (numbers for April aren’t out yet, but my guess would be they’re even higher).

Which puts us zero wasters in a great moral dilemma. Takeout is almost impossible without (waste, that is). The facts are staggering:

  • 561 billion disposable takeout packaging items are used in the US each year‍, which make up…
  • 4.9 million tons of waste generated from food service disposables annually, which in turn…  ‍
  • cost $1 billion USD annually in the U.S. to manage (collect, recycle or dispose of).
  • 75% of those numbers account for takeout; 21% for dining in (whoever dines in a restaurant that uses throw-away dishware and cutlery needs to take a serious look in the mirror!); and 4% for delivery in 2016, “although more recent data suggest that this number has increased sharply since then.”
Too much waste in this takeout
Mouthwatering burger and fries… if it wasn’t for the waste!
Photo by Christopher Williams on Unsplash

Unfortunately, the coronavirus seems to have accelerated the problem. There is no convincing evidence that reusable bags, cups or containers contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus any more or any less than their single-use counterparts.

Yet, from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York, municipalities are temporarily repealing bans on single-use plastic bags and prohibiting reusables in food service settings. 

How to reduce waste from takeouts

We zero wasters don’t give up easily. Here are some ideas on how we can take the waste out of the takeout, even during COVID-19:

  • Order directly from the restaurant by phone or through their website if possible, rather than through a food delivery service, as this gives you the option to make special requests… see next bullets.
  • If you’re super lucky and live in an area that has a reusable takeout dishware subscription service like GoBox (Portland, OR) or GreenToGo (Durham, NC), ask for your takeout to be packaged in them. As far as I’m aware, these awesome services are still operating even under COVID-19.
Reusable takeout containers
Some of the reusable takeout containers that GoBox use

“Given the critical move to takeout for many restaurants, there has been a spike in the amount of waste being created in cities. Reusable takeout dishware programs like Forever Ware provide commercial sanitation to prevent the spread of viruses in case of future pandemics, while allowing restaurants to make progress on sustainable initiatives.”

Natasha Gaffer, Founder & CEO, Forever Ware
  • Request your order without extras like napkins, forks, sauce sachets, cheese tubs, etc. (unless you really can’t live without your favorite cheese sauce). The restaurant should be happy about this as it saves them money and it reduces waste.
  • Choose curbside pickup over delivery if possible. If you’re picking up, you can ask them there and then not to add any extras and to drop the bag, too. 
  • Select meals that come in minimal packaging like burritos or kabobs, if possible.
Not much waste with kebab
Kabob (Kebab for Brits and Germans) is a favorite low-waste takeout option
Image by Marcel Gnauk from Pixabay
  • If you know how the restaurants tend to package their food, you may want to order from those who use recycled or compostable packaging and not styrofoam or black plastic that are non-recyclable in most areas.

It’s not ideal, but it’s these small steps that will keep us afloat on takeouts until some of the policies banning bring-your-own (BYO) packaging are lifted again post-COVID.

How to take waste out of takeout COVID-19
One day all our takeout meals will look like this… the packaging, I mean. You’re still allowed burgers.
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash

And there’s more we can all do, whether it’s COVID-19 or not:

  • Have a conversation – make restaurants and food vendors aware if you’re unhappy with their choice of packaging and ask if they’ve thought about alternatives (chances are, they probably have and probably have a reason for why they’re using that type of packaging). It shows them that you, i.e. their customers, care, and maybe they will reconsider.
  • Vote with your feet / dollars, or even publicly – if you’re the type of person who leaves reviews for restaurants or food vendors, why don’t you mention the packaging. Give praise for “good” packaging practice, and deduct a star for wasteful packaging, even if the quality of the food was great (make it clear that it’s because of the packaging).
  • Sign a petition or campaign for new regulations in your area. has developed a national reuse network with more than 80 organizers working in 20 states that you can join. They’ve even developed a model reusable foodware ordinance which they’ve helped pass versions of in seven cities with more than 1m residents and 8,000 restaurants.
  • Join one of the reusable dishware programs mentioned above. Usually they’re not just a service, but an entire community striving to transition the world towards reusable packaging. And they’d love to have you on board, whether you live in that city or not!

There’s still some way to go before we can all enjoy our favorite takeout meals 100% guilt- (=waste-) free. But even during COVID-19 there are some steps we can take to reduce the takeout waste now, and push the transition to reusable packaging in the future.

Here’s how The Overbrook Foundation breaks down how we could get to almost zero waste from takeout. As you can see, the key lies in pushing for 80% reuse:

This is how we can reduce waste from takeout
Potential for waste reduction in New York City by solution type (Source: The Overbrook Foundation)

How do you reduce takeout waste? Any tips to add? Please let me know in the comments. Stay safe and take care, cheers, Bettina. 

3 thoughts on “How to take the waste out of takeout”

  1. This was a really helpful post! My strategy has mostly been to cook at home, but I’ve been feeling guilty about that because I’m not supporting local restaurants. But then I also feel like I shouldn’t have to feel compelled to spend money on prepared food that I don’t need that comes in wasteful packaging, because our economy shouldn’t be set up such that people’s livelihoods depend on waste. It’s a whole back and forth! Anyway, your article has given me some new angles to think about this, and I appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lisa, thank you for your comment, I’m glad the post is helpful – and I totally get how you feel. It’s been very hard to avoid waste during COVID, and takeout is one of those areas. We tend to order takeout once a week to support the local restaurants and try to follow the tips in the blog post, although it’s not always possible. I now have a large collection of plastic forks that hopefully will come in useful one day…


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