Oct 19, 2021 - Food and Drink

Navigating bring-your-own containers for Chicago takeout

Woman puts food in container.

Monica packs her own takeout at Chengdu Aroma in Lakeview. Photo: Colin McMahon

A few weeks ago I walked into my local Sichuan restaurant with a bunch of empty plastic containers and an odd question:

  • "Would it be OK if I ordered my food for here, but then packed it all in my containers to go?"

Why it matters: The pandemic has seen a sharp rise in single-use plastic, including food containers, as people try to support restaurants with takeout. But less than 9% of US plastic is recycled.

  • Plastic production and incineration contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The most recent EPA data shows the U.S. dumped 10 million tons of plastic into landfills in 2018.
  • Chicago Department of Public Health officials confirm that the only legal way for patrons to use their own containers at a restaurant is to pack the food themselves.

What happened: After some discussion, the staffer agreed and told me to come back in 15 minutes, when I would find my five dishes plated on the bar.

  • I returned to find him placing the final dishes next to others already covered with plastic wrap.
  • I took out my big spoon, packed the food into my containers, popped them in my bag and walked home for a nice dinner.
  • Meanwhile, my patient partner Colin took above video of my antics as requested.

Questions for restaurateurs: Would you allow customers to pack their own takeout at your place? And, if so, what would be the least disruptive way to do it?

Question for diners: Would you patronize restaurants more if they let you easily pack food in your own containers?

  • You can respond to this survey here.

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