Zero-Waste Takeout Tricks for Your Work Lunch
Ahhh, takeout. We all love it, and we all have our favorite spots (shoutout to New Legend on 7th ave — that ma po tofu is absolute fire). Sadly, getting takeout is a really easy way to rack up a ton of trash, even if you check the “skip plastic utensils” box on your Seamless order.
When I was searching for zero-waste takeout tips online, most of the info I found revolved around “ordering in” a takeout dinner on a night when you just can’t bring yourself to cook. This is totally a thing, but for me, it’s not the biggest zero-waste pitfall in my life. When I’m already at home, I can usually at least whip up some pasta or eggs, and if not, I’ll often just go to the restaurant myself. I don’t order takeout at home very often — it’s just not a major habit of mine. If it is for you, you might find these articles from some amazing zero waste bloggers super helpful:
For me, where things start to get reallllllly trashy is actually when I’m at work. I work in an office in Manhattan, and I know firsthand that the lunch rush from all the folks in my office (let alone my neighborhood) is a big time for trash production. Most days, I remember to bring my lunch from home, but when I don’t, I can often find myself saddled with a baffling amount of landfill trash. I put together this post to offer some tips that have helped me avoid making so much trash during the actual most important meal of the day (sorry, breakfast).
Tip # 1: Think ahead
To be fair, I’m usually in this conundrum of getting stuck with plastic packaging in the first place because I didn’t think ahead and forgot my lunch — so this trick might not do you much good in the moment when you’re starving and have left yourself high-and-dry with no zero-waste lunch options.
That said, planning and preparation really is the best way to avoid a #zerowastefail when you start to get hangry, because you can control the packaging you choose to bring your lunch in. Bringing your lunch is your best friend when you’re trying to reduce waste.
But, thinking ahead can come to the rescue in a couple of other ways, too. For example, keeping a ‘zero waste takeout kit’ in your desk drawer with reusable utensils, a cloth napkin, a tote bag, and a versatile container is something you only have to remember to do once, but might be a life-saver when you forget your lunch — which is bound to happen more than once.
Thinking ahead might also mean knowing that on Wednesday, like clockwork, you’re going to suddenly have a craving for Thai food, and making sure to either bring some green curry from home or have the containers on hand to get it from your favorite spot when the craving hits. It can also mean knowing that you usually eat from the same takeout place twice each week, and choosing to order the dinner portion of your favorite dish once instead of the lunch portion twice to cut down on delivery plastic.
Taking a moment to think about your upcoming week of lunches can help you avoid some, if not all, trash emergencies.
Tip #2: #BYOC
Bringing your own container to a restaurant can seem really daunting, but I swear you get used to it. While sadly not absolutely every restaurant will be cool with filling your brought-from-home container with food from their kitchen, there are some things you can do to up the odds of success.
Firstly, keep in mind that you’ll have better luck bringing your own container at a pay-by-weight or cafeteria-style spot, where you can just start filling up without having to ask any of the staff to do something outside their norm. Just make sure you know the size and weight (AKA tare) of your container so that they’re able to ring you up easily.
Your second-best odds are at a fast-casual spot where food is being made to order at a counter — just ask, “would you be able to put my order in the container I brought instead?” before you place your order. I’ve only been turned down once.
Another thing you can do to make the #BYOC process go smoothly is make sure that your container is spotless. Some employees will be hesitant to accept your container because of health-code concerns — don’t give them a reason to question you and make sure that container shines like the top of the Chrysler building. Staying close to the size and shape of containers the restaurant normally uses can also help — anything you can do to prevent your ‘ask’ from being a huge variation in routine will make a ‘yes’ more likely.
Lastly, you’ll be more successful if you avoid the lunch rush, when restaurant employees will have less time to accommodate special requests.
Tip #3: Look for compostable packaging
If you’re not able to bring your own container, try to head to restaurants that already use compostable packaging. You can usually tell if the material is compostable by looking — compostable containers have a pulpy, egg-carton-like appearance. You can also ask the restaurant — they’ll usually know if the container is compostable.
If you’re opting for this route as a ‘zero waste’ option, just make sure that you actually have the capability to compost the container afterwards. If you end up throwing compostable materials in the trash, that’s not a zero waste lunch in the end. At my office, we have composting, so I’m good to go. If you’re interested in setting up a composting program at your office, check out my blog post on the subject.
Tip #4: Progress over perfection
Lastly, keep in mind that zero-waste is never really zero, and not every decision will be perfect. Hopefully these tips help you take a step toward waste reduction, if not elimination.
If you liked this post and want to learn more about perfecting a zero-waste work lunch routine, I created a mini-course on the subject that I hope you’ll check out! You can find that here. Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have any questions in the comments!