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BYOC - Bring Your Own Container?

Jul 30, 2010 by Erin M. | Story Popularity: 8

I work downtown, and like many people, I often eat out for lunch. Actually I guess that's an understatement because to be honest I eat out almost every day. Eating out at lunch is convenient, and it's a good time to socialize with my co-workers and associates - but it comes with consequences. And by that I mean the plastic and Styrofoam containers most ("fast", ie: not sit down) lunch places dispense their food in. If I start to think about all the plastic and Styrofoam entering our landfills each day because of take-out containers, I start to feel sick and like the whole system is just ridiculous. When did we start eating out of a package we're just going to throw away 15 minutes later? I somewhat sympathize with the situation - most of the places downtown are too small to house their own washing facilities, "Biodegradable" take-out containers carry a premium, Styrofoam is relatively light and cheap, and if people bring their own containers it potentially raises food safety issues. At least that's why I presume things are the way they are. But as I'm enjoying my lunch, I often look around me and wonder if anybody else is thinking what I'm thinking - what a waste it is to eat like this!

It's strange because when I'm up at school in Santa Barbara, I bring home lunch almost every day, usually leftovers. I guess it's because I have more time to cook, plus I try to be frugal on my student budget. I bring lunch in a glass container, and since we have a common kitchen in our building, we can easily whip something up or heat something up with the common plates, utensils and glasses we have. If someone does buy out, we know by word of mouth the places on campus that allow us to bring our own containers and plates, and so that's always an option. But this summer, working in a business environment, with long business and commute hours, and having a paycheck, I guess sadly I've just been getting a little lazy about preparing my own food. Plus I like going out to find food with my co-workers and exploring at lunch time. Which of course means I end up eating out of Styrofoam and plastic on most weekdays - blech!

So a few weeks ago I started to contemplate places that I thought would let me try my own container. I felt a little strange about it, seeing as I'm not in student-run Santa Barbara and instead the Honolulu business district - and I wanted to do it at a place I went to semi-regularly. So the place I decided to try out is a small hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop in TOPA (if you eat in TOPA, you know what I'm talking about). They have a cute salad bar and variety of soups and will make your sandwiches fresh, plus they have a bunch of healthy drinks and chips to choose from. I've been going there since I started working, and I thought since they used small paper bags and wrapped their sandwiches on paper plates with plastic wrap - instead of using large Styrofoam containers like most places - perhaps they would not mind bringing my own container. The first time I felt strange. I asked for my sandwich to get put into a plastic container, and the ladies kindly let me. Then the following times I've used my own container for the salad bar. I do feel like I elicit sometimes weird looks from the people around me, but it's better than using Styrofoam I'm going to throw away 5 minutes later. So far this is the only place downtown I've tried bringing my own container, but I'd like to try more. It'd just be nice if I could know ahead of time if I'd be rejected or not.

So my question for other Kanu members out there - has anyone else tried bringing their own container to restaurants, outside of say the Farmer's Markets and similar outdoor venues? Would you be willing to share those places and your experiences? What are other people's ideas about reducing waste from take-out containers? Do you bring your own "hashi" (a habit I picked up in Japan) when you go out to eat at a place you know will give you plastic utensils?

I know we here in Hawaii love eating out, and we love our plate lunches, but at some point I think the system has got to change - and maybe I should start by vowing to bring home lunch more often.



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  1. Aloha Kai says:

    Aloha Erin ~
    Mahalo for continuing your excellent work. UCSB appears to be good for you and thank you for sharing your ideas with us.

    You asked about health considerations. I believe many establishments, correct or not, interpret local ordinances in such a way that they would be discouraged from allowing the use of personal containers. If the containers inadvertently introduce harmful bacterial into the take-home food, the establishment might be blamed as the culprit.

    This doesn't mean smaller shops, particularly ones where you have a personal relationship with owners, might not be willing to support your plan. It makes a lot of sense and saves companies money on wasteful products.

    I believe your point about biodegradable containers is right on target. These products seem to cost more and consumers are not likely to demand increasing their costs at this time. As it works with so many issues, it is the "less expensive" products that do the most damage to our environment and lives - and, so many families are pinched right now that they prefer cheaper goods.

    If we consider the plastic shopping bag policy debate, we seem to require legislative/council action to move us forward. By "taxing" these products or banning them outright, we force change in our communities.

    If you or anyone has time, it would be great to see a comparison of costs between traditional plastic and Styrofoam containers and some of the biodegradable options.

    How much more per unit do these environmentally-friendly products cost, if there is a significant difference? As with many products, greater demand can bring costs down. Would you expect to see such a decrease in price if we could encourage residents to modify their expectations and behavior?

    Mahalo for all your efforts!

  2. Yes thanks Erin! I think this is inspiring! Sometimes you have to go out on your own against the grain to make a real example of change. I've been trying to keep take out containers in my car for reuse, too. And I try to use real silverware in the office break room.

    Here is some info I've been researching...Yesterday, the Huff Post had an article on our waste habits and the alternatives: http://tinyurl.com/2aezxq4

    According to local compostable dealer Styrophobia.com, switching to a compostable lunch plate will only cost the consumer $13 more dollars per year! Although the bioplastic industry has its own issues, in the long run, corn or sugar-based products use less resources and produce fewer emissions. (Learn more at http://styrophobia.com/)

    For Hawaii, I think the issue is where does our trash, even our recyclables go, and how cost efficient is that. My next step is to look into this...Let me know if anyone out there has the inside scoop.

    In talking to local vendors lately about transitioning away from plastic, I hear all these urban myths (read excuses) about how plastic is easier to burn, or paper is too expensive for HI to recycle...so I'm interested to get to the bottom of it and know the facts.

    We're trying to get Plastic Free Kailua off the ground, so check out our Kanu group page or FB page: http://tinyurl.com/2ws8wgk

  3. Aloha Kai says:

    Aloha Rachel ~
    Wow, excellent research ... thanks so much. We have SOOOOO much talent here! Truly amazing!

  4. Aloha! Kanu member Nova Lee has been researching reusable take out containers, for use maybe one day but us interested folk who feel bad using the stryrofoam & other waste. Some Kanu have been 'testing' the containers by taking them to local businesses to great success: Umeke Market downtown (great for 3-salad combo, or mini-plate), Mediterranean Cafe (in the hallway at Alakea & King, near Subway), & Govindaji's have all gratefully used a clean personal container (with lid) that we've supplied.

    Mahalo for being fearless & helping the environment while searching for the ono grinds of downtown! In the end, bringing our own containers helps save businesses money, too!

  5. Nova Lee says:

    Hey Gang,
    So I have been using my collapsible reusable containers for over a year now the brand I like best is Progressive though the lid tends to get loose over time it is the best I have come across and I have tried plenty. You can buy it on line. Originally we were trying to make it available through Kanu but that did not work out. I have taken it with me to all manner or restaurants from four star top of the line places in San Francisco to the salad bar at health food stores and no one has yet to tell me that I could not use my container. Actually the reaction has been universally positive. I have had restaurant managers and grocery stores give me their business cards wanting to carry the containers. People have stopped me in the store asking me where I got the container and wanting to buy it right out of my bag. As such I am currently on my way to moving to California to design and produce my own line of reuse-ware. I will keep you up dated on when my products will be available. Until then bring your own container everywhere you go and realize that the only reason anyone is looking at you is because they are quietly thinking in their minds, " Oh wow that is such a good idea, I should do that."

  6. Aloha Kai says:

    Aloha Nova ~
    Thank you for the updates and background information. Glad to hear establishments are more willing to help than I had heard. Their cooperation helps a lot.

    Best of luck to you with your move and as soon as you have your new product line, maybe Kanu can be your FIRST community market. : )

    Malamo pono!

  7. Erin M. says:

    just an update on BYOC: i've taken nova's lead and started to take the container to every place i go this week, no matter what kind of place it is. so far no one's turned me down! i guess because we sometimes get turned down up at school, i was afraid of going around finding the places that allow it... but it doesn't seem like there's going to be any problems in downtown as of yet! i've been continuing to use a great container i got at longs. it's got compartments like a plate lunch and is about the same size as one. :)

  8. Aloha Kai says:

    Aloha Erin ~
    Thanks again for keeping us posted. This seems to be a relatively easy way to help reduce waste. It's great to know so many establishments appear willing to support this action.

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