Bring Your Own Plastic Container

No reader question this week, Table Manners fans: Helena has her own etiquette dilemma.

I usually bring my lunch to work in recycled yogurt containers. It bothers me to see my co-workers, who eat out, discarding so much trash: plastic clamshells from Caesar salads, Styrofoam pho containers, and cardboard sandwich boxes. Many are conscientious about recycling, but not all containers can be recycled. In any case, as we all know by now, reuse is always better. Ecoconscious Chowhounds are bringing their own containers to restaurants to hold their takeout food or leftovers. So recently I found myself wondering: Do health and safety codes allow this? And is there a specific type of container restaurants prefer that you bring? I decided to investigate.

Andrew Goenn, a server at Soup Freaks in San Francisco, said that although the store uses biodegradable containers, it “would be great” if people brought their own.

Restaurant regulation varies from state to state, but the FDA Food Code serves as a model. This states that it’s OK to refill containers belonging to the restaurant, provided they are properly cleaned and sanitized. But it says nothing about filling customer-owned containers. Neither does the health and safety code belonging to my home state of California. Here, a restaurant should not allow customer-owned containers into its food preparation area, but “giving the customer a plate of food and allowing them to transfer the food to their own container should not pose a problem,” says Kathie Griley, director of industry education for the California Restaurant Association.

If you’re using your own container as a doggy bag, it’s easy enough to fill it yourself. But at a busy takeout place, it’s too time-consuming for staff to first serve food on plates so that customers can transfer it to their Tupperware (not to mention that they’ll waste energy washing those plates).

If restaurants want to reduce waste without violating health and safety codes, there is a practical solution: provide reusable containers. Customers would receive a small rebate for returning containers, and the restaurant could then sanitize the containers per health and safety regulations. Some microbreweries already do this, by giving customers growlers or Mason jars they can refill with beer.

But unless more places start doing it, what’s a Styrofoam-hating takeout eater to do? According to Griley, there is a loophole in the FDA Food Code. If a restaurant can fill your container without taking it back into the food preparation area (“like if the pizza oven is right behind the counter”), some health inspectors would turn a blind eye, and restaurants will happily fill your receptacle.

Sure enough, when my husband took a china dinner plate to the pizza joint around the corner, the guy behind the counter readily plopped his slices onto it (although Jordan noticed the other customers giving him “weird looks”). The next day, I took a plastic container to an Indian place and ordered a vegetable curry. The server filled it for me without raising an eyebrow. It probably helped that my container was sturdy and clean. So if you want a restaurant to fill yours, don’t use a cracked margarine tub.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.