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  • Jenica

How to Eat Out Zero Waste Style

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

We all do it. When we're in a hurry, we stop to grab a bite to eat at a food truck. Or we forget our packed lunch at home and run down to the local deli. For a special occasion (or just a regular Friday night) we'll go out to eat at a restaurant. Going out to eat isn't a bad thing! It's convenient, fun, and a way to support our local businesses! But we also have to take a look at whether or not our eating out habits are harming the planet.

Disposable cutlery, take out containers, and food waste are filling up our landfills, our oceans, and our streets. So if you want to grab a bite to eat without making a ton of waste, here are 10 tips for you to follow!


1. Eat at local restaurants that source local ingredients.

The best way to make sure you're cutting down the impact of eating out is to support local businesses who cook with local ingredients. Supporting local means that your ingredients are traveling less to get to your plate (less carbon footprint). Local businesses and farmers will also be more likely to implement policy changes such as straws only by request, water only by request, and composting their food waste.

2. Bring your own container for leftovers.

Take-out containers are convenient, but they also end up in the trash as soon as we finished our food. Whether or not a restaurant offers compostable containers, the best environmental option is to bring your own. Just because a container is "compostable", doesn't mean that it will break down in the landfill. City wide composting programs might also not be available to dispose of it properly! Try keeping a few reusable containers in the back of your car or at work to make sure you always have one on hand - and then you already have your lunch packed for the next day!

3. Ask for "no straw please!"

Avoiding a straw is a small step, but can add up none the less. Make sure to tell your waiter to skip the straw when bringing your drinks! Remember that paper straws are still a resource too, so skip them as well.

Coffee for here

4. Know the food safety laws.

With the #bringyourown movement growing quickly, many states are starting to run into problems with their outdated food safety laws. Washington, for example, is currently working on a campaign to allow customers to order restaurant food straight into their containers. The law, as written, does not allow food trucks to place food into a customers container or take-out orders. For now, the simple work around is getting the food on a plate and then transferring it to your container. There is nothing wrong with that as restaurants have release the food into your possession.

You can also join in on the conversation and encourage your county or state to address food safety regulation related to bulk foods and customers containers.

5. Participate in a reusable to-go container program.

Some companies are starting to offer container programs for meals that can be washed and returned afterwards. In Portland, restaurants like Garden Bar offer containers or companies like GO Box have a variety of partnerships and offer reusable containers and mugs!

6. Bring home the compost scraps.

I'm a pessimist at times so I like to do things myself when possible! Instead of hoping a restaurant will compost your good scraps, be proactive and take them home in your own container! You should also take the opportunity to speak up and ask management about composting. Only 15% of the food waste created by restaurants across the U.S. gets composted with 85% headed to the landfill. With 40% of our landfills in Washington being filled up with compostable material (nearly half of what we send!), we need to take every chance we can get to shrink that number.

7. Bring your own napkin.

Just because paper napkins aren't plastic doesn't mean they're "good" for the environment. Most of the time too the restaurant is unlikely to have access to composting and those napkins will end up in the waste bin. Bringing your own napkin avoids that and is really handy if you're eating on the go or in your car. Nobody likes to be caught with sticky hands and nothing to wipe them off on except your pants...

Restaurant with plants

8. Bring your own silverware.

For many restaurants you won't have to take this extra step as they will have metal silverware on the tables already. But if you eat out at food trucks, farmers markets, or get things to go, it's a good idea to always have a fork and spoon with you! If it's easy, keep a set in your purse. You can also stash some in a your desk at work or put them in a basket in your car along with a container and your reusable shopping bags.

9. Don't order water unless you actually plan on drinking it.

Yep, that's right. A huge amount of water is dumped down the drain at restaurants because people ask for water and then don't drink it. Many restaurants now are only bringing out water on request to help reduce water waste. It may not seem like much, but water is a precious resource and we should treat it accordingly.

10. Leave feedback for restaurants!

Letting restaurants knows whether you were happy with their recycling, composting, and environmental practices is important! Leave feedback on the restaurants Yelp page or other review platform (whether positive or negative) to help others learn about them as well. Posting the feedback publicly is also more likely to get the companies attention as they want happy customers!

And remember, mistakes happen.

Every once in a while you may forget your supplies and end up with some waste. Just last week I forgot a container and wound up bringing home a Styrofoam box of Ethiopian food leftovers. In that case, saving the food waste was a bigger environmental impact than avoiding the disposable box. Be kind with yourself - and push yourself to remember next time!

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