Taking on the takeout

How many times a month do you order takeout food from a restaurant or bring leftovers home? Include lunch, dinner, coffees, fast food, slow food, catering, etc. If you are like most Americans you eat out a fair bit, in one form or another. A majority of takeout food packaging is used only once and goes to our landfills after a short life.

A majority of restaurants use polystyrene (PS) containers because they are the cheapest. Unfortunately, they are also the most impactful to our environment and our health.

Polystyrene is a major source of litter that harms wildlife and imposes cleanup costs. Local governments spend millions of dollars cleaning up PS disposable food packaging. If left untreated, PS litter, broken down into small pieces, is ingested by marine life, harming or killing them.

Styrene poses significant human health risks. The primary building block of polystyrene, it is a neurotoxin, classified by the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) as a possible human carcinogen. Polystyrene food containers leach styrene into the foods they contain (e.g., on contact with acidic foods or when heated food contains vitamin A).

Recycling is not a reasonable option. According to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, there is “no meaningful recycling of food service PS.”

Many other takeout containers are plastics with a very low recycling value. such as numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6. Petroleum-based plastic has as many or more negative environmental impacts as polystyrene. Even numbers 1 or 2 plastics, which have a high recycling value, are recycled less than 5 percent of the time.

So what’s the answer? Short of a ban on takeout packaging (Palo Alto recently banned all Styrofoam takeout packaging), there are things restaurants and consumers can do.



Bring your own containers for leftovers to restaurants and avoid the takeout packaging. I started doing this last year and have received many compliments on this option. To-Go Ware sells stainless steel containers online ( Cost Plus stocks similar ones at lower prices.

Bring your own cup when you buy brewed coffee. Most coffeehouses offer a discount because you have saved them the cost of a cup.

Ask for alternatives to Styrofoam or plastic. Less impactful choices, such as a paper cup with lid, tinfoil or paper plates, can often work just fine,

Encourage restaurant owners to switch to biodegradable/compostable products or numbers 1 and 2 plastic for their takeout products.



Train your waiters to say, “Thank you,” to customers for bringing their own containers.

Consider offering discounts or other incentives for greener customer behavior.

Join the GreenTown Los Altos buying co-op to buy environmentally preferable takeout products at affordable prices. The co-op is launching this year and recruiting restaurants for a beta test group.

For more information about the Business Co-op, call Mike Barnes at GreenTown Los Altos, 714-9660.

Kacey Fitzpatrick is executive director of GreenTown Los Altos, and is principal of Avalon Enterprises Inc. For more information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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