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4 ways to make your takeout food order less wasteful

Takeout can produce a lot of waste! Here's how to curb that.
Sustainability experts share tips for making your takeout order less wasteful.
Sustainability experts share tips for making your takeout order less wasteful.Oscar Wong / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Takeout food offers a convenient and safe way to enjoy restaurant-quality food at home — especially during the pandemic. But all those takeout containers, condiment packets and silverware sets can create a lot of unintended waste.

While we're not about to give up our takeout habit anytime soon, we can take small steps to ensure that our next order is a bit less wasteful. Here are four tips you can try.

1. Say "no thanks" to utensils and condiments

If you're on a road trip and chowing down in your car, it makes sense that you wouldn't have silverware with you. But if you're simply picking up dinner from your local restaurant to eat at home, do you really need those plastic utensil packets they always give out? Not really.

"Something as simple as not taking silverware keeps plastic out of the waste stream. You may need to state that when you place your order but I believe every little bit helps. Try to support businesses that are doing the right things, or at least attempting to do the right things," said Mary Kiernan, a chef and associate teaching professor in Syracuse University's food studies department.

The same concept applies to other "extras" restaurants tend to hand out while you're checking out: straws, napkins, condiments, etc.

"Be sure to specify that you don't want these items. They are not recyclable and will end up in the trash, generally," Dr. Sara Elnakib, a family and community health sciences educator at Rutgers, told TMRW.

2. Ask for less packaging ... and order more food

We're used to customizing our food orders with extra condiments, ingredient substitutions or items on the side, but did you know that you can also ask restaurants to customize your takeout packaging? Some takeout apps offer this as an option, and if you're ordering over the phone you can always ask if there's a way to use less packaging (if it's safe way, of course). And the items you select on the menu can also influence how much packaging your order requires.

"Consider which food types have the least packaging when thinking about ordering takeout. Subs and sandwiches have a lot less packaging than other options, for instance," said Dr. Amy Rowe, a member of the Rutgers agriculture and natural resources department.

It might sound counterintuitive, but you can also create less packaging waste by ordering larger portions and using it for multiple meals.

"As a consumer, consider if what you order will last more than one meal period. That is cutting the packaging waste by half if you order out frequently. This maybe be a conscious clearer but I feel it is relevant," Kiernan said.

3. Research which types of packaging can be recycled

You can't always avoid extra packaging, but you can take the time to research which pieces can be recycled.

"Recycling rules are highly dependent on your local pickup service/county/municipality, but generally, plastic containers and lids can be recycled after being rinsed. Check your local recycling provider's website or you can search for info about recycling specific items locally on the Earth911 website," Rowe said.

One easy item you can likely recycle? Those sturdy paper bags restaurants use to store your takeout boxes. Just make sure it's not super dirty or greasy! Those plastic bags other restaurants offer can typically be recycled at your local supermarket.

"It needs to be a specific plastic type to be recycled, so it’s better to return them to grocery stores. Soft plastic should never be put in the curbside recycle bins as it causes many problems during the recycling process," said Tiffany S. Legendre, assistant professor at the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

As for one of the most common takeout foods, pizza, you'd think those cardboard boxes would be easy enough to recycle, but the experts TMRW spoke to were divided in their opinions.

"Pizza boxes should not be recycled due to the grease from touching food directly, but they can be added to a compost pile, if you have one. Styrofoam that had food in it cannot be recycled and should go in the trash," Rowe said.

On the other hand, Tim Ebner, the American Forest & Paper Association's press secretary, pointed us towards a June 2020 study that found that "the presence of grease and cheese at levels typically found on pizza boxes does not impact manufacturing in a negative way."

Either way, it's best to consult your local recycling guidelines to see what your city accepts!

4. Ask yourself how hungry you really are

When was the last time you actually finished every morsel of your takeout order? Most of us leave something on the plate or toss leftovers in the fridge only to forget them. And over time, all that food waste can add up.

"Food waste is a really big issue in the U.S., and we waste nearly 40% of our food. Food waste is a major environmental issue; not only are we wasting the resources that went into making this food, from the farm to the table, but once this food ends up in a landfill, it creates methane, a greenhouse gas much worse than carbon dioxide," Elnakib said.

Looking for ways to reduce food waste when ordering takeout? Consider these tricks from Elnakib:

  • Order off the lunch menu, kid's menu or appetizer menu so you know you'll finish your meal
  • Share an entrée with family and friends if you think it will be too large to eat alone
  • Write the date on your takeout container, so you know you how long you have to eat it
  • Put takeout containers in the front of your fridge so you don't forget about it