Why Doesn't Toronto Have Reusable Containers for Take-Out Like Other Cities?

Have you ever tried bringing a reusable container to get take-out in Toronto? It’s rare. We’re a take out restaurant and though people do bring their own containers on occasion, it doesn’t happen every day and hardly happens every week.

The Struggles to Reuse

Bringing your own container is awkward. You have to carry that thing around, you have to wash it afterwards, and what if it’s the wrong size?

If you want to use your own container, you need to make a special point when you order (it’s not like anyone every asks) and the person behind the counter assembling the food might get annoyed. It’s easier for them, like it’s easier for you, just to use the standard takeout container like every other order.

Personally, as far as reusing goes I’ve gotten good at bringing my own bags to the grocery store, but that’s about it. I’ve never brought my own piece of Tubberware to a restaurant.

About 25% of the time I remember to bring my travel mug when I grab a coffee on the go, but I usually forget and depending on where you go it’s not always easy.

My travel mug team

My travel mug team

Starbucks and Tim Hortons have gotten good about it, even giving a $0.10 discount for not wasting one of their cups. On the flip side, I’ve gotten into arguments with McDonalds because they’ve refused to use my travel mug for hygiene reasons. Ultimately, when going reusable you never know what you’re going to get.

I don’t blame anyone, not the customer nor the individual behind the counter. Reusing is a nuisance. It is easier to just throw stuff in the garbage and make the garbage someone else’s problem.

Plastic and Foam are the Worst

You still see many restaurants using plastic or foam containers. Some of these containers can be recycled but when you hear the stories or see the stats you realize it’s a very small percentage. Most of our non biodegradable packaging ends up in a landfill forever.

It’s hard to blame restaurants when the cheap containers can come at a price under $0.10 per item. In most cases they keep the food warmer too. Biodegradable containers usually cost at least $0.25 and sometimes up to $1.00 or more depending on your buying power and the size of the package.

As restaurants we always want to give the customer what they want, an in many cases that’s as cheap a meal as possible. A take-out container, a bag, napkins, cutlery, these are all real costs that add up.

If you order take-out often, no matter what, you are almost sure to see bad these types of packaging.

The Problem with Takeout Containers

The good news is the popularity of biodegradable containers is gaining steam. Unlike the plastic and foam used by many restaurants, these containers are made of corn or sugarcane and can biodegrade quickly in compost under the right conditions.

However, there are still problems with containers that look better for the environment. If they aren’t disposed of properly under the right conditions they may not decompose properly or the process can take a lot longer

There’s a big industrial process needed to manufacture the containers and then they need to be packaged and shipped to restaurant, then collected and shipped from where you leave it in the garbage to get to the landfill or compost. Even biodegradable containers have an impact on the environment.

Typical (unorganized) drawer of reusable containers

Typical (unorganized) drawer of reusable containers

Reusable Take-Out Systems

So, what about a reusable takeout container? After doing some research I found there are programs out there.

The most developed seems to be GO Box, which has penetrated Portland and San Francisco. As a customer you sign up for the program that is also being used by various restaurants and food carts. The food vendor gives you food in a reusable container, you drop off the dirty packaged when you’re done at different drop-off sites around the city. GO Box washes the reusable container and sends it back to the restaurant to use again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

A GOBox container

A GOBox container

It seems pretty easy. There’s another program just like it in Durham, North Carolina called GreenToGo and another called OZZI which uses a fancy vending machine looking box to collect dirty containers. The OZZI system has been successful at universities and the health care sector where take-out is frequent.

OZZI reusable system

OZZI reusable system

The bottom line, it is possible.

What About Toronto?

So why can’t Toronto have a similar system. We have environmentally conscious people, plenty of food and lots of take-out. Is there anything stopping us from trying something like this?

What would it take for you to be comfortable and opt for a reusable container for take-out?

Do you know any Toronto restaurants encouraging reusable containers?

Do you use plastic or glass containers at home or do you ever clean and keep plastic containers you get when ordering takeout?

Article by Greg Martin, co-founder of Farm’r

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