I beamed with pride when a server at an old-school Burbank diner proclaimed, “You’re going to save the world,” as I packed up the uneaten portion of my tuna melt into the reusable plastic container I’d brought from home. I’ve been making an effort to bring my own takeout packaging to restaurants for the past decade now, but I had never felt seen and understood in this endeavor until that very moment. Why yes, I am going to save the world, I thought, one dodged single-use plastic container at a time.
Growing up in a multigenerational Vietnamese household in Southern California, I’ve always been made hyper-aware of waste. My grandma couldn’t bear to throw out perfectly good food packaging. She repurposed margarine containers as cereal bowls and kept sewing supplies in an old Danish cookie tin. Her commitment to reusing plastic containers trickled down to my mother and eventually to me.
At my suburban San Diego elementary school, the necessity of conserving water and energy and the importance of recycling were regularly taught along with the requisite English, science, and math curriculum. These messages of conservation were so persistent that my friends and I even started a secret club we called Earthsavers. We met periodically in a parked camper and made our logo — a lifebuoy colored in shades of blue, brown, and green to resemble the planet — into wearable buttons. I can’t seem to recall what we did to save the earth, however.
These days, though, I’m doing my part by stashing a bunch of takeout containers in the trunk of my Prius and taking them inside restaurants using a casual canvas tote. People bring their own bags to grocery stores and metal water bottles everywhere, so why not apply that line of thinking to packing up leftovers when dining out? (I don’t extend this ethos to takeout orders, generally.) Any dent we can make in reducing the 150 million tons of single-use plastic waste each year worldwide is critical. While it will take some time to get into the rhythm of carting empty containers into restaurants, the benefits can be substantial.
The positive impact on the environment is clear, but how the practice can be a boon to restaurants might not be as obvious. Most pertinently, bringing your own containers saves the establishment money by lightening the financial burden that constantly restocking to-go containers and disposable bags imposes. Profit margins are slim in the restaurant business — and shrinking over time, given the rising cost of labor, ingredients, and rent — so every bit helps, even if it’s just pennies at a time. Additionally, bringing takeout containers eliminates a step during service, providing restaurant workers who are on their feet all day with one less task to complete. Instead of transferring your food into containers, servers and bussers can dedicate that time and energy elsewhere, whether that means providing more personal service to another table or just taking a small breather from the job. As a bonus, returning empty plates to the kitchen — after scraping them clean into takeout containers — provides a signal to chefs and cooks that you thoroughly enjoyed your meal.
The personal benefits of bringing your own takeout containers are notable as well, especially for those dining out with small children or impatient companions. Having containers on hand and ready to pack up any leftovers immediately after having finished eating moves the evening along, preventing younger diners, or just antsy ones, from having a complete tantrum.
In addition to staving off post-meal meltdowns, bringing your own packaging can quell some of the feelings of helplessness we’re all prone to when it comes to combating climate change. With signs of a warming planet made more apparent each year, it can seem like the earth is burning and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it. Bringing my own packaging doesn’t negate this awful feeling altogether, but it does create a sense of agency in a matter that is largely out of my hands. I feel just a bit better knowing that I am doing my part, no matter how small.
While I have found that bringing my own takeout containers is easy enough to execute at casual establishments and mom-and-pop spots, there have been times at nicer places when I’ve felt self-conscious busting out my lowly Tupperware. Still, on recent fancier dinners out at Majordomo on the edge of Chinatown and at Spago in Beverly Hills, I put my self-consciousness aside and stopped wondering how this looked to any onlookers.
But let’s say that some stranger did think that bringing my own takeout containers was weird, it’s a small price to pay to save the world. Wash, rinse, and repeat.