Carrying Our Own Containers: Powerful Action or Pointless Inconvenience?

BlogHer Original Post

Bringing my own stainless steel container to the butcher shop“Do you ever get embarrassed?” A journalist following my plastic-free life put that question to me as I handed the butcher my stainless steel pot. I was buying ground meat for my homemade cat food. In my own container. Waste-free. “No,” I answered flippantly. “I haven’t been embarrassed about anything since I turned 40.” But the answer wasn’t quite that simple. I do realize that my actions can seem extreme to many… okay most… people. And it’s not always easy to buck the status quo.

Whether sending my husband out with a metal tiffin for Chinese soup when I’m sick or bringing my own stainless steel wine glasses to an outdoor music festival to avoid plastic cups, my actions have provoked both smiles and raised eyebrows. And in the end, do my efforts really matter? Can one person bringing her own mug, water bottle, food containers, glass straw, cloth napkins, reusable utensils, and of course cloth bags really make an impact on the environmental problems we face today?

If I were alone in my efforts, perhaps they wouldn’t be more than personal feel-good measures. But fortunately, I am not alone.

Take Out Without

Take Out Without bannerA new campaign aimed at reducing unnecessary restaurant packaging is urging supporters to bring their own resusables (BYOR) and to refuse disposable containers, cups, bags, even straws. Take Out Without asks its members not only to bring their own containers but also to upload photos of their actions to the TOWO Flickr Group and to hand out TOWO informational wallet cards explaining how restaurants can reduce their food packaging waste. The campaign’s creed:

1) ReFuse Unnecessary Stuff. Think about the spoons, forks, straws, and napkins that you get served (why do they give you enough for a family of 20 when eating alone?). Ask yourself before accepting all these items, “Do I really need all of this?”

2) Re TakeYour Own Reusables. You can bring your own containers, straws, cutlery, mugs, bottles, and even your own bag – It’s so easy to find and use!

3) ReConsiderYour Habits. It’s easy to fall into a routine, so why not choose to create a new one?

I asked Lisa Borden of Borden Communications & Design, the force behind Take Out Without, how she came up with the idea for the campaign. Lisa explained that the idea originated with one of her clients, a manufacturer of bamboo products, who wanted to take action against Styrofoam. But Lisa wasn’t interested in stopping at Styrofoam. Why not target all restaurant packaging waste?

…in a day and age where too many of us spend more time eating and drinking from restaurants and cafes over our own kitchens, it’s an issue that is broad enough to be able engage so many into taking action.

Lisa herself would rather stay home and cook her own meals. But when out, she prefers sit-down restaurants over carry out and chooses those that practice waste reduction as much as possible. Her favorite restaurant creates compost from leftover food, which is then used to grow the organic produce they serve. But she recognizes that unfortunately not everyone has the time to cook at home or sit down for a meal. In those cases, bringing our own containers for take-out or leftovers can make a difference.

What if a restaurant won’t do it?

From my experience, there are businesses that have no problem filling up my containers (the Chinese restaurant down the street, the butcher shop, Whole Foods, my local cafe, the sandwich guy on the corner) and there are those that do. And there are those that ostensibly do but actually don’t get it. Take this example from Lisa:

Some businesses get it, some just don’t….

[Once] I went proudly into a great cafe and handed my Insulated Klean Kanteen over to them and then realized that they made my drink in a disposable, poured it into my mug, and threw out the cup! Moral of the story: always check the process, not just the end result!

I choose to frequent spots that do get it, or want to…. but it’s amazing what businesses will do for your business. Remember to explain WHY you are bringing your own containers. Then you’ll be the brilliant one starting a trend.

My attitude? First, ask. You won’t know if you don’t ask. Then, patronize the businesses that will comply with the request and steer clear of those that won’t. I always try to explain why reducing waste is important to me and why I won’t be coming back until they either start letting folks bring their own containers or at least switch to sustainable, compostable packaging.

What about health concerns?

Lisa says,

As a mother of an allergic child, I certainly have concerns over cleanliness and food safety, and can embrace that there need to be exceptions to every rule, but also that there is a way to make anything and everything work. Really, how clean is that pizza box laden with toxic chems anyways? If you consider all sides, you can freak yourself out about the dangers of everything. Reducing is important. We can find a way.

Personally, I’ve had several take-out places refuse to use my containers, citing vague health regulations. But in my experience, more of them will do it than won’t. That’s here in Oakland, CA. Your mileage may vary. But like I said before, you don’t know if you don’t ask.

What if they point and laugh?

In addition to speaking with Lisa, I asked around to find out what other people thought about bringing their own reusables for take-out food. Micaela from Mindful Momma, who recently wrote about all the containers and bags she brings with her to shop at the coop, wondered if bringing containers to restaurants was somehow different. As she wrote me,

For instance, let’s say I want to get a deli salad from a regular grocery store (not the co-op). If I bring my own container do they have a way to figure a tare weight? Will the salesperson be totally confused and look at me like I’m a nut-case?

And then, inspired to examine her concerns further, Micaela wrote a new post: Preparing to Reduce TakeOut Waste.

Truth be told…I’m a bit embarrassed to be seen as an eco-geek. I’m cool with bring all sorts of containers to the co-op, but out there in the ‘real’ world, I’m less comfortable rocking the boat. Let’s say I bring a reusable container to the deli and ask them to fill it up instead of using a new plastic container. What if the salesperson gets confused or thinks I’m a nutcase? What if people look at me weird for bringing out my own utensils?

It’s a psychological hurdle Micaela wants to get over. And she goes on to suggest that a campaign like Take Out Without is a great way to get us motivated and to not feel so eco-freakishly alone. Lisa Borden agrees, and says that sometimes those embarrassing moments can turn into great conversations.

Going through airport security with my husband and kids, being questioned about the 5 stainless steel bottles (empty at this point due to liquid restrictions) and 2 insulated travel mugs (also empty) in our carry on luggage. I can safely say that I was sweating thinking of how we were going to manage if they confiscated them! It turned out they were all just curious and one of the agents, was so impressed that I had figured out a way to get a large serving of water on the airplane that wouldn’t spill that she asked me what else I could share!

I myself am not over the fear of standing out in a crowd. My solution? Take a deep breath and do it anyway. Those feelings of discomfort that wash over me from time to time? They’re starting to feel like my best friends.

How will this help me?

In my quest to find the best tips for organizing and remembering to bring our to-go supplies, I met San Francisco personal organizer Debra Baida, who blogs at Liberated Spaces. Oh boy, am I glad I met this woman! Not only is she deeply committed to the environment, I’m hoping she can help me clean up my desk, which is still just as messy as when I wrote about it here last July!

First, Debra lists a few personal reasons why we might want to consider bringing our own containers. Regardless of whether or not doing so will “save the planet,” it can help us get out from under the mountains of “stuff” that bogs us down day to day.

The cupboard where I once stored bags became so full that accessing them became an unpleasant exercise in preventing a mini-avalanche on the kitchen floor. The same was true for the abundance of empty yogurt containers that were stacking up with no place to go. The reality was that over the course of many years, I was only going to use a mere fraction of these bags and containers, so why continue to bring in more?

Debra says she started with cloth bags, which are durable and easy to hang up, sparing herself that impending plastic avalanche. Then, she began repurposing many of the other containers she already had for bulk purchases. “When I began to purchase certain food items from bulk bins and became mindful of the packaging certain products came in, I was amazed at how little “trash” I was ultimately bringing into my home.”

How do I organize and remember it all?

Here are Debra’s tips for organizing to-go supplies:

1) Establish a reasonable limit to how many containers you need and will actually use.

2) Designate a place in the kitchen where the containers will live. This can be a drawer, a shelf, a basket – whatever suits you. The key is to limit storage to one designated space that is both accessible and easy to use. And if it’s located in close proximity to your to-go bags, even better. Bags will remind you of containers and vice versa.

3) Depending on the space and your proclivity, stack container bottoms and lids together or separately in this space.

4) If plastic bags (for reuse) are part of your to-go regimen, store them in a modest to small-sized container so their accumulation is limited. For example, I have a small cloth bag hanging from a doorknob which is used solely for plastic bags.

5) When preparing to head to the grocery store, in addition to grabbing your shopping list, grab some bags and containers (the latter are especially useful for purchasing bulk items). The same applies for leaving the house when you go out to dine – especially if you have children! I don’t know many kids who actually finish their meal, so rather than asking for a to-go container and bag, you can whip out your own (and amaze the waitperson in the process).

With practice, this will become as commonplace as grabbing your cellphone before you leave the house.

That last line is important to me. Lisa Borden said something similar:

Maybe it sounds cliché, but you don’t leave home often without your keys or wallet and accomplish what you set out to do. If I don’t take my insulated mug with me, then I do not get a tea to go. Even if you forget, don’t take the disposables… t’ll make you remember next time

What if I can’t do it all?

No one is perfect, and no one is expecting us to make changes all at once. Start by refusing simple things like extra napkins, ketchup packets, plastic straws. Dee from Live Green Mom writes about how much she loves her new reusable glass drinking straws. While giving up plastic straws might not seem like a huge step, Dee says it’s important to make changes in manageable increments. To “lean into” them.

You may be saying, that is all well and good at home, but are you going to start taking these things with you? Yes. Yes I am. My husband is skeptical, but supportive. We are leaning, sweetie, leaning ...

Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of Live Green Mom’s family taking glass straws with them.

Renee from EnviroMom writes “Bring your own durables restaurant-style: introducing the take-out kit” about how she keeps a reusable bag with nested reusable containers in the back of her car to help her remember. She calls it her Take-Out Kit, and told me that when she does use it, she’ll often get compliments from servers for thinking ahead.

Do I have to buy a bunch of new stuff?

Absolutely not! While Lisa from Retro Housewife Goes Green provides a useful list of reusable take-out products in her post, Stop Wasting, While Out, we really can just use the things we already have. Mugs, utensils, containers are things most of us already have stored in our homes. Glass drinking straws? Probably not. But they are fun. I love mine. And I also love the travel mug that my co-worker bought me for my birthday when using a mason jar for a coffee mug wasn’t cutting it. But truly? Start with what you have.

How can I get other people to participate?

Besides asking our friends to sign up with Take Out Without, Ada from CuteBaby says she helps her coworkers reduce waste by posting the following in the kitchen at her office:

A word of eco-encouragement:

Feel free to leave your empty 7-11 cup here in the sink and I will wash it out. If you happen to think of it on your way over there, and grab a clean cup from this cupboard for your drink – you’ll pay the refill price. Save a little money, and keep some plastic out of our landfills. Neato!

I’m not sure I’d be willing to wash other people’s dishes (Just ask my husband!), but that is certainly a way to encourage bigger participation.

Will bringing our own containers solve the waste problem?

No. Not in and of itself. Green advocate Terra Wellington says that since the vast majority of the population is never going to bring their own containers to restaurants, we are wiser to focus our attention “upstream,” urging businesses to switch to more sustainable types of packaging and banning Styrofoam. That said, there are a couple of aspects to the Take Out Without campaign she appreciates:

I love the ReFuse component. It is easy, general-consumer messaging that can go a long way. Even if all customers did was refuse the straw, imagine the impact! And that is just one easy way to approach this — virtually none of us really need the straw to drink the beverage.

And she also appreciates the Take Out Without wallet cards as part of the educational effort.

Jennifer Schwab, Director of Sustainability at Sierra Club Green Home has similar feelings. She shared with me that in her personal life, she made it a mission to ask the owners of restaurants she liked to give up Styrofoam packaging. She would tell them they had 90 days to switch or she would find another place to eat. A few managers complied with her request since she was such a regular customer. Who says one individual can’t make a difference? Like Terra, Jennifer Schwab feels that it’s more useful to ask restaurants to change their practices than to ask busy Americans to bring their own containers.

It takes all kinds.

As I’ve said in other posts, while it’s clear to me that our personal, individual actions are not enough to clean up the planetary mess we’ve gotten ourselves in, they are an essential starting point. What each of us does matters. Lisa Borden says, “all little things add up to big things. The African proverb that I live and work by is, ‘If you think you can’t make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.’”

Hi. My name is Beth Terry. I’m a mosquito.

Beth Terry: attempting to live plastic-free and blogging the heck out of it at Follow her on Twitter.


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