Column: Contain It!

Why using your own carry-out container is a great idea
Donald Harrison, reusable Rubbermaid container in hand, orders take-out from Noodles

Donald Harrison, reusable Rubbermaid container in hand, orders take-out from Noodles & Co. on South State Street. (Photo by the writer.)

“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.

Sushi from Totoro in a metal lunchbox brought back from China.

A California roll from Totoro in my metal lunchbox.

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.


  1. By shannon
    August 24, 2009 at 11:30 am | permalink

    I think this is a great idea. Count me in for Bring Your Own Container Week 2010!

  2. By mr dairy
    August 24, 2009 at 1:16 pm | permalink

    Sounds like the makings of an experimental documentary film.

  3. By Linda Diane Feldt
    August 24, 2009 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    The Indian style Tiffin container is stainless steel, has a number of different containers stacked all together, holds hot stuff really well, and stands upright easily. I have put soup in it if I know it won’t be tipped over. I’ve started asking restaurant people to fill it with carry out and gotten positive results. But did encounter the “overflow” issue – I need more practice knowing what to order and what fits. Great with left overs, there is a learning curve with carry out. Thanks for promoting the idea. And the Co-op sells the stainless containers, last I looked they were displayed above the salad bar.

  4. By Julia
    August 24, 2009 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    What a GREAT idea ! I would especially love to be able to use my own container for the salad/hot bar at places like Plum Market or Busch’s. I wonder how difficult that would be in terms of getting an accurate weight ? At any rate, count me in on carrying my own container when I next go out to eat or get carry-out.

  5. By Peter
    August 24, 2009 at 5:48 pm | permalink

    Conceptually I love the idea, but I know there is a risk of contaminants going from the public across the counter and into other peoples food. Touching hands, gloves, utensils or anything to your container puts others at risk. In this nutty world could this even be intentional. This is not a simple matter.

  6. By Newcombe Clark
    August 24, 2009 at 6:59 pm | permalink

    Mary, I’ve got a potential solution for your carry out (at least if you live or work close enough to where you purchase things).

    Ask to take the food, coffee, whatever away with you in their own dishes. If you frequent a place enough they’ll know you and know that you’re good for bringing it back. I find this works very well for my numerous coffee and tea trips throughout my day. I just (carefully) carry their ceramic cup and saucer back to my office with me. Then I bring it back the next time I head over and drop it dirty in the bus tub. I still get the quarter discount and save the paper, I don’t have to worry about remembering to bring my own, they don’t have to worry about the cleanliness of my container, they handle the clean up, and best of all, it reminds me how great it is to live in a city where their is that kind of trust and mutual respect with one another.

  7. August 24, 2009 at 7:30 pm | permalink

    Thanks for breathing some life into this idea Mary. I really don’t want to be the one “container guy” on State Street and would like to reduce a lot of wasteful carry out packaging.

    It’s a bit more complex than putting packaged goods into a shopping bag, but I’ve been doing this for a year and imagine we’re smart enough to create a system that works. The more people do it and discuss, the sooner we’ll figure it out. And for places like Sava or Totoro, I tell them I’m bringing my own container when I order – they know about it. I also have a sticker with the container weight on the lid for places that weigh.

  8. By KT
    August 25, 2009 at 8:15 am | permalink

    i thought i was the only one who hauled my tupperware around for restaurant leftovers! though in truth i don’t always plan ahead.

    reusable containers help preserve the environment but also our health. a couple years ago i spoke with some local restaurants about the hazards of styrofoam containers and even sent letters signed by fellow diners. several months after receiving a letter (i did not get a response), cottage inn switched from styrofoam. according to a waiter, this was because they melted under the heat lamps.

    styrene is transferred to food from polystyrene (styrofoam) food containers (1,2). this is especially true when the containers are holding food that is warm or high in fat. according to a hazardous substances fact sheet (2) styrene is a possible human carcinogen.

    styrofoam does not biodegrade well and can leak toxins into the groundwater when they are dumped into landfills. according to an EPA report (3), 910,000 tons of polystyrene were thrown away in 2005, essentially none of it recycled.

    of course personal reusable containers are better even compared to disposable “green” containers. i am on board for the — “contain yourself” ?? week!! keep us posted.

    1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report

    2 The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Report ToxFAQs™ for Styrene

    3 Environmental Protection Agency Report

  9. By Sarah Prince
    August 25, 2009 at 8:50 am | permalink

    I like this idea, too, but as a former restaurant employee, I wonder how I would judge how much to put in containers of varying size if I’m used to using the same size container each time, such as at a place like Noodles. Of course it works for things like sushi and sandwiches, but I would think that restaurants that serve portions like Noodles would have to consider that. Perhaps they portion by weight, anyhow, and knowing the weight of your own container is just a matter of telling them what the “tare” is. If they don’t measure by weight, I suppose they could put it on the plate they use for eat-in orders, then transfer to your container. This would be another way to decrease bacteria issues, and to avoid temptation for employees who might just put it in the carry-out container to judge how much to give you, then transfer it to your container and throw it away when you’re not looking. Just some more issues to consider from another perspective. :)

  10. By carrie
    August 25, 2009 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    Sorry, you lost me going on & on about your metal container, article too long! Nice idea though…..

  11. By JK
    August 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm | permalink

    This is a wonderful idea! It reminds me of old school Japan, where people would bring bags and containers to the market to fill.

    If you take-out from a place on a regular basis, like a favorite lunch spot, just drop the container off the day before or earlier in the day. You may want to label it so that it doesn’t end up mixed up with another customer, who has also taken to the idea. I don’t see most places complaining, especially if they are getting regular patronage.

  12. By JK
    August 25, 2009 at 7:58 pm | permalink

    Oh, and as for the accurate weight question,just ask them to hit the “tare” button to re-zero the scale before weighing out your food. They do this already for different weight containers.

    If you are going through a salad bar, you could weigh the container ahead of time, and mark your container with the weight. There might be a bit of math, so if you don’t like doing numbers in your head, you may want to be prepared with your cell phone’s calculator.

    I hope these suggestions are helpful.

  13. By Karessa
    August 26, 2009 at 7:55 am | permalink

    Great column, Mary! Hope it catches on.

  14. August 31, 2009 at 1:55 pm | permalink

    Go Donald! This is a great cause and we should all follow suit.