“I don’t want to be the Container Guy,” Donald Harrison told me. “I want to be one of many people – this should be a normal thing.”
Harrison is executive director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, but the container he’s referring to doesn’t hold movie reels: It’s a Rubbermaid collapsible bowl he uses when he orders carry-out from local restaurants.
I tagged along with Harrison recently as he took his container and ordered peanut satay (with double peppers) from Noodles & Co. on South State Street. Based on the reaction of workers there, Ann Arbor has a little ways to go before this kind of thing is “normal.”
For Now, The Container Guy
When I first heard about Harrison’s self-contained habit, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. Though I don’t get carry-out often, I do usually have leftovers from meals I eat in restaurants. And it’s annoying to lug home a huge Styrofoam box for the six bites of Kung Pao chicken I can’t quite eat. Annoying and wasteful. So I’ve started to bring my own lunchbox when I eat out – more on that later.
Harrison is light years ahead of me on this. Taking your own container was a common thing in San Francisco, where he used to live. He thought it would be equally common in Ann Arbor, with its Birkenstocked recycling-enthusiasts (my characterization, not his). He was surprised that this wasn’t the case.
It could become common – this does seem like a town that would embrace a relatively easy way to eliminate at least some packaging waste and save restaurants a few bucks. Harrison has experimented and found several restaurants willing to do it, most of them in the State Street area, where the film festival’s office is located. In addition to Noodles & Co., they include Sava’s, Totoro, Silvio’s and the Earthen Jar on South Fifth. He uses his own container at the People’s Food Co-op too, over near Kerrytown – that’s not surprising, since in general the co-op is set up for people to re-use their containers.
Some restaurant employees don’t make a big deal about Harrison’s request to use his container instead of their own – a sign of near-normalcy. Even better, sometimes employees have been so enamored of the idea that they give him a discount.
Is It Legal?
But not everyone’s on board. One restaurant owner flat-out refused, fearing it would open him up to liability. The owner reasoned that if the container is contaminated, you could easily blame the food that was put into it – even if it wasn’t the food that made you sick.
This restaurant owner also thought that using your own container violated health codes. That concern prompted me to call Dick Fleece, director of Washtenaw County’s public health/environmental health department. In fact, Fleece said, there’s nothing in the health code that would prohibit the practice of using your own container for carry-out. But if you do that, he added, you need to take precautions.
Most obviously, keep the container clean, he said. From a cleanliness perspective, the advantage of traditional carry-out containers is that they’re designed for one-time use – it’s clean the first time because it’s never been used, then you throw it out when you’re done.
Fleece recommends containers made of stainless steel – that material is durable, easy to clean and doesn’t scratch easily, so there are fewer places to harbor bacteria. Wash it in a dishwasher if possible, he said, or use a solution of diluted bleach water.
The notion of getting carry-out food in your own container puts more responsibility on the consumer to keep their containers clean, Fleece said – but it’s not much of stretch, he noted: People do bring their own lunch to work, right? And nobody seems to freak out about that.
It Seems So Easy, And Yet …
So if there’s nothing to prevent restaurants from participating in this approach, what are the obstacles?
From my own first steps down this path, I’d say one of the main obstacles is breaking old habits: I keep forgetting to take a container with me. In my case, I’m mostly carting away leftovers after eating lunch at a restaurant. If I’m out running errands or working on a story beforehand, I have to think several hours ahead as I’m packing up my gear to head out. I’m getting better, and positive reinforcement helps. When I pulled it out at Old Town and loaded up my leftover quesadillas, our waitress said I was the best customer ever – and this was before leaving a tip. Nice.
There’s also the not-inconsequential issue of the container itself. Harrison got his Rubbermaid collapsible bowl at Meijer. The bowl has a strike against it from Fleece’s perspective because it’s plastic, not stainless steel. But aside from the material, it has an asset in being collapsible: It doesn’t take up much space in your backpack, bag or briefcase. There are a few tricks to it, though. Some restaurant employees would push too hard when putting on the lid – and it’s not cool to have the bowl collapse when it’s full of scalding udon soup (or whatever). Now, Harrison has learned not to hand over the lid. He puts that on himself, gently.
Leakage can be a factor in other ways, too. I’ve been using a metal lunchbox I brought back from China years ago. It’s great for pretty much everything – except liquids. Unlike Harrison’s Rubbermaid bowl, the lid on my tin doesn’t have a tight seal. So I’d never use it for soup, and I’m leery even of food that comes with a sauce. I take along a plastic grocery bag as double-wrap protection from potential spills.
You also have to consider volume. For carry-out in particular, you need to know that your container is big enough to hold whatever it is you’re ordering. The ultimate irony would be to require an “overflow” styrofoam box for your lunch because there wasn’t enough room in your own container.
There’s another issue I haven’t quite figured out: What to do if you call in your order for pick-up? Standard practice is that your dish is ready, all boxed up, when you arrive to pick it up. You could transfer it from the restaurant’s container to your own, but that would be a fairly meaningless exercise, in terms of eliminating waste. So I’m stuck on that one. Any ideas?
Ok, Now What?
For the most part, though, this concept is solid. And before you dismiss it as a total non-starter, I have two words for you: Grocery bags.
Not so long ago, the only people who brought along reusable bags for their groceries were the aforementioned Birkenstock crowd. But now, you can’t walk into a grocery without seeing some kind of reusable bag for sale, typically emblazoned with the store’s logo. They’ve even got reusable cloth bags for sale at the tiny Knight’s Market, for crying out loud. There’s no reason reusable carry-out containers couldn’t see that level of acceptance as well.
While I think bring-your-own carry-out containers could catch on gradually, I’d love to see the idea get a kick-start from some kind of organized effort. Let’s give it a name – Contain It! Restaurants, which stand to save money from decreasing the number of carry-out boxes they use, could promote it, perhaps offering some kind of nominal discount for people who bring in their own containers. Enterprising eateries could even sell carry-out containers in their stores.
I had coffee a couple of weeks ago with Maura Thomson, the energetic executive director of the Main Street Area Association, and I floated the idea of a coordinated container campaign. Maura is a great advocate for downtown merchants, and eager for new projects that could boost local businesses – she and the former co-owner of Bella Ciao, Kathy Macdonald, recently pulled off a wildly successful Restaurant Week, the first of its kind here. I figured if she thought the idea was a dog, it probably was, and I’d drop it. I don’t want to characterize her response as an endorsement, but she didn’t laugh me out of Espresso Royale, either.
But even if this whole thing never takes off in any widespread way, I take comfort in knowing there are at least two of us – hopefully more – who are taking a few styrofoam containers out of the waste stream. And when the clerk at Noodles & Co. asked Harrison if he wanted plasticware with his carry-out, well, it’s clear that containers are just the start.