The most eco-friendly takeout container is the one you bring from home

Help protect the Great Lakes and ditch single-use plastics with these four tips when you eat out.

Beyond plastic

Priscilla Du Preez |
Lauren Justice

Protecting Our Waters Intern, Environment Illinois Research & Education Center

I love to have a nice night out with friends. We plan to grab dinner at a new restaurant in town and enjoy a long conversation catching up, then I realize my eyes may have been bigger than my stomach. Now I have a big plastic container filled with leftovers to take home. Even though I reuse some containers, I only need so many in my collection. While the others may end up in the recycling bin, if I can tell that they are accepted by my local recycler, many simply have to be thrown away. Less enjoyable. 

Luckily, I realized there’s something I can do to change this situation. Rather than asking for a box and regretting the unnecessary plastic, I can come prepared by bringing my own container.

Four tips I’ve learned for starting this new habit:

  1. To make it easy for me to remember my reusable containers I put them somewhere I won’t miss, like with my keys or inside the bag I plan to bring.
  2. I remind myself to bring a container using a sticky note near the front door or on top of my keys so I can’t miss it.
  3. It even helps me to plan how I’ll carry the food home. You may think the containers are too bulky, but I like to bring a tote bag either as my main bag or rolled up in my bag of choice so I have a place to put any leftovers.
  4. I started by using the leftover containers I already had, but found that investing in collapsible containers that easily fit in a purse or other small bag was very useful.
Staff | TPIN
A selection of reusable containers or pouches that are great for travel

Inspire others to BYO-container

By bringing your own container, you can show restaurants and other customers interested in protecting the environment that this is a possibility. Even better, this can lead to them changing their behavior as well, replacing plastic containers with a biodegradable option, reusables or just decreasing the number of plastic containers used.

This year, the Illinois legislature took steps to support this effort as well. They passed a bill, HB2086, which amended the Illinois Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act so that restaurants will have guidelines for using containers brought by customers for taking their food to go. This change will help us shift away from single-use toward reusables and refillables– but only if we take advantage of it. 

This is an important transition for us to make. Plastic as a material cannot be recycled again and again. Many types of plastics can’t be recycled at all, and others can only be recycled 2-3 times because the quality degrades every time the material gets recycled. Typically, pre-used plastic is more often “downcycled,” that is, turned into a product that is not recyclable or not as recyclable as the product from which it came. To solve the plastic pollution crisis we have to start by reducing plastic consumption by moving toward reusable and refillable systems. 

Make other parts of your life eco-friendly

And this doesn’t have to stop with your restaurant leftovers. You can start to incorporate reusable containers into other parts of your life. For example, consider bringing your own coffee cups and utensils to cafes where plastics are usually the only option. This switch is easier than you may think, just leave a to-go coffee cup and simple utensil set in your bag each day. That way you never have to think about grabbing them and they are easily available when you need them.

I hope these ideas will inspire you to reimagine how we can enjoy a night out while doing good for the planet too.


Lauren Justice

Protecting Our Waters Intern, Environment Illinois Research & Education Center

Emily Kowalski

Outreach & Engagement Manager, Environment Illinois Research & Education Center

Emily manages the marketing and public engagement strategy for Environment Illinois's campaigns, including our campaign to protect the Great Lakes from plastic pollution. Emily lives in Chicago where she enjoys knitting and biking.

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