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Lunch to Go

Is there a smarter way to package our takeout?

Let’s talk lunch.     
    As a child, each day I carried to school a packed lunch in a metal Holly Hobbie lunch box, later replaced by Wonder Woman.
    As an adult, I sometimes remember to pack a lunch from home. But more often than not, lunch is carryout.
    Bay Weekly prides itself on running an eco-friendly office, and we try to recycle the majority of our waste. Yet the sheer volume of take-out packaging that ends up in the garbage is disturbing.
    What’s the best container for our lunches? Is there a winner in the green lunch competition?
    Not really. It is more a story of better vs. worst.

Better

    It was no surprise that items from the grocery stores and markets are wrapped in mostly recyclable plastic containers. Everything we get from Whole Foods can be recycled and even composted. The Annapolis store even has bins for consumers to recycle things like batteries, cork, plastic bags and yogurt cups. Most to-go items from Fresh Market and the local Safeway are packed in recyclable plastics.
    The leaders in the takeout battle aside from grocery stores were ­Giolitti’s and Lemongrass: Both use plastic containers with lids — preventing spills and providing a convenient way to transport, store and even reheat our takeout.
    Lemongrass moved away from polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, several years ago after working with the Sustainable Annapolis initiative.
    “We don’t use Styrofoam at all. We use recyclable containers, which are plastic No. 5. For rice, we use paper boxes,” says Shannon Ross of Lemongrass.

Not-so Bad

    Slightly better are places that primarily use paper products, like McDonald’s and Capriotti’s. Paper food packaging provides demand for recycled paper, but the recycling chain ends with it. Sorting facilities can’t recycle greasy, food-soiled paper. This contamination can lead to an entire bale of recycling being rejected at the sorting facility and sent to the landfill instead.
    A used pizza box, for example, is taboo — unless you cut off the grease-stained sections.
    Since paper does break down, composting it is not out of the question — but only if you are willing to take it home and do the dirty work yourself. And if the paper is waxed or foil-lined, you are out of luck. The paper may decompose, but the plastic or foil lining won’t break down.
    Straight aluminum foil is recyclable, if you rinse it off. So when my family orders take-out from Domino’s, wings are a recycling best bet. They come foil-wrapped in a cardboard box. The box is clean, and the foil can be washed and added to our recycling tub.

Worst

    The surprise in this casual takeout tracking project was the number of restaurants still using Styrofoam. Both Cha Cha Chicken and Lebanese Taverna package takeout in polystyrene. Our lunches often spill before we get back to the office, and we’re left with containers that are not recyclable.
    Styrofoam is villain No. 1 to recycling champions. So why is it still being used here when our neighbors in Washington, D.C., Montgomery and Prince Georges counties have implemented a ban on the material? And why is it so awful?
    I brought my concerns to Julie Lawson, executive director of Trash Free Maryland.
    “The reason most places still use Styrofoam is cost,” Lawson says. “But when you factor in the entire cost of a meal, from sourcing, packaging and then the costs to the environment, it really isn’t that much more expensive to use something else.”
    Lawson says that demand is steadily driving the price of compostable and recyclable packaging down. That demand could grow if a similar Styrofoam ban comes to Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.
    Elvia Thompson says her organization, Annapolis Green, is currently talking with city council members on legislation to ban the material.
    Styrofoam is very difficult to recycle. Thus, it often ends up in our waterways, where it breaks down into lots of tiny pieces that are hard to pick up — except by wildlife mistaking the bits of polystyrene for eggs or insects.
    “All plastic absorbs chemicals,” Lawson explains. “Polystyrene absorbs chemicals at 10 times the average rate. Those contaminated particles end up in the fish that mistakenly eat the foam.”

Smarter Choices

    So how do we make smarter carry­out choices? It starts with considering how much packaging we really need and trying to first reduce our consumption.
    Being able to recycle materials is one of our greatest weapons against pollution and overflowing landfills. But not having anything to recycle in the first place makes a far bigger impact.
    Then think reuse. It’s possible to carry your own reusable straws, napkins and utensils.
    Surprise the waitstaff and bring your own containers for leftovers. Ask restaurants if they can package your takeout in your own container. You may endure some strange looks, but if the restaurant recognizes you as a loyal customer, your request may be honored.
    Don’t want to be the odd one bringing your own plate to the counter? Talk to the management at your favorite restaurants. If they are still dealing in Styrofoam, let them know that changing their packaging is another service they can provide.
    One lunch at a time, we can start a carryout revolution.