Are reusable takeout boxes worth the resources needed to make them?

Multiple-use containers aren't automatically the more sustainable option.
Reusable containers are only as good as our commitment to reuse them. Pexels

Since 2019, customers of almost 150 participating restaurants across New York City have had the option of receiving their takeout and delivery orders in returnable, reusable food containers thanks to DeliverZero. The third-party delivery service intends to reduce plastic waste, one reusable container at a time.

The convenience of takeaway food in today’s fast-paced, modern lifestyles might explain why the global market is estimated to reach $120.43 billion this year. However, as the founder of DeliverZero realized, the increasing reliance on to-go meals is not good for the environment. Plastic bags, food containers, cutlery, and other take-out items dominate global litter in most major aquatic environments around the globe.

In some cases, consumers are encouraged to bring reusable alternatives to minimize the waste generated by single-use takeaway containers. But the manufacture of reusable alternatives, because they need to be durable enough to withstand multiple uses, may use more energy and generate more greenhouse gasses (GHG) than the production of single-use ones.

That comparison—whether reusable takeout containers are always more sustainable than single-use ones—is answered by a new study. Reusable containers generally have lower impacts across most metrics than comparable single-use containers, according to a recent Resources, Conservation, and Recycling report. This research quantified environmental performance across different metrics, such as end-of-life waste, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, primary energy usage, and water consumption.

“From a waste perspective, reusable containers are more environmentally preferable even when containers are used only four times,” says Christian Hitt, a graduate student from the University of Michigan and Center for Sustainable Systems research assistant who was an author of the study. However, it doesn’t just come down to the number of times you reuse the container. Many factors need to be considered when assessing whether a product is environmentally preferable over an alternative, he adds.

Transportation, washing, and other elements

Customer behavior can influence how sustainable a container is. For example, if only 5 percent of customers travel to the restaurant solely to return used containers, then the reusable system would have higher life cycle GHG emissions and primary energy use than single-use containers, the study found.

It was also common for customers to wash the container to some extent before returning it to the restaurant, the authors observed. This can be excessive since restaurants must still wash the container themselves before reusing it, says Hitt. If all customers ran the reusable container through the dishwasher before returning it, the life cycle energy impacts could be equal to or more than that of a single-use container. The washing method, water heater type, and electricity grid of the customer all factor in.

[Related: How to make your takeout order less wasteful.]

Individuals are recommended to follow the best practices with washing and transportation, says Hitt. For example, it’s better to scrape or rinse the reusable container with minimal cold water, as opposed to hand- or machine-washing. Returning the container with low-impact transportation, or only returning it when purchasing another meal or when the drop-off is along an already planned route, is also advisable, he adds.

The material composition of a takeout container is crucial, too. The authors considered the material type, like polypropylene (PP), polylactic acid (PLA), and aluminum, in their study. “PLA containers require high water consumption relative to other containers,” says Hitt. Containers also vary in GHG emissions due to differences in their production and disposal, he adds.

A 2019 Journal of Cleaner Production study similarly conducted a life-cycle assessment of four different takeout containers: single-use aluminum, expanded polystyrene (EPS), PP, and reusable PP. The authors found that single-use EPS containers are the best option when compared to reusable PP takeaway containers, because their manufacture uses fewer materials and less electricity. Reusable PP takeaway containers and “Tupperware” food savers would have to be reused three to 39 times and 16 to 208 times, respectively, to become a better option than EPS containers.

The number of reuses matters because it determines how many single-use containers were displaced over the life of the reusable container, says Alejandro Gallego Schmid, senior lecturer in Circular Economy and Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment at the University of Manchester, who was involved in the 2019 study. But single-use EPS containers have a major flaw: They are not usually recycled, because it is costly to do so, he adds, which means they cannot be considered a sustainable option.

Rules for restaurants and patrons

People who are conscious about making sustainable choices may reuse their own containers, but that’s not the same for all consumers. Therefore, says Gallego Schmid, restaurants and policymakers must make it easier for everyone to reuse and return containers.

Hitt agrees. “Restaurants should look into implementing reusable systems as this can reduce their environmental impact as well as foodware costs,” he says. “Implementing incentives such as discounts when returning containers could increase participation.”

[Related: How companies greenwash their plastic pollution.]

The restaurant chain Just Salad currently has two reusable bowl programs. In the first one, MyBowl, you can purchase a reusable bowl and receive a free topping every time you reuse it for in-store orders. With the second program, BringBack, you may opt to receive your meal in a green reusable bowl that you can return to participating drop-off locations. For the whole month of February, they are offering salads at a discounted price across all locations for customers who reuse their bowls for in-store purchases.

Meanwhile, lawmakers can ban or tax the use of single-use plastics and also provide grant money to fund reusable container programs. One way to allocate money this way is through a solid waste disposable tax (which is collected per ton of trash delivered to a dump) that could fund circular economy programs, says Hitt.

Outlawing certain carryout items can be effective, too. At least eight states have a ban on single-use plastic bags. Vermont goes even further with a more comprehensive plastics ban, which includes plastic straws, plastic stirrers, and EPS food and beverage containers.

Exploring alternatives to common takeaway containers is crucial, especially given the plastic crisis, says Gallego Schmid. A rigorous analysis of the environmental impacts of different takeout container materials is necessary, he adds, so consumers can be informed of what they use as they eat.