6 Ways to Reduce Waste While Eating Out

Restaurant front in Paris

I’ve written about food waste and wastetarianism before, but this is the first time I’m really discussing sustainability on the blog. I’ve been hesitant to broach the subject since I think eco-consciousness talk can come off strong and seem like a shaming session. I also feel like an imposter since I often get things wrong.

I’ve realized, however, that general sustainability knowledge and practices fluctuate wildly by country and region. In France, there are several more environmental regulations than in the U.S. Single-use plastic bags in supermarkets were banned 3 years ago. Stores don’t give you any bags (paper or plastic) for free–you’re expected to bring your own. All produce bags are also biodegradable. At large events such as festivals or Christmas markets, organizers are required to have what’s called “la consigne” for your cups–you pay a euro deposit on a reusable cup, and get the euro back after you finish your drink and return the cup. There are no throwaway cups (running races seem to be the exception).

In the U.S., plastic bags are still largely available–for free. In some parts of Massachusetts (such as Boston), they’re banned, though paper is almost always offered as an alternative. In most other parts of the country, people don’t give much thought to the kind of grocery bag they use, especially the produce bags (I think I’ve only seen biodegradable produce bags in the U.S. once). In Ohio, basically every shop offers free plastic bags, except Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. While talking to my friends and family in my hometown, I’ve realized that there’s still a lot of confusion on what sustainability really is. My mom, for example, still believes that all she needs to do is recycle, rather than reducing single-use consumption first.

The only way to dispel these misconceptions and clear up the confusion is to talk about sustainability, and to talk about it in an approachable way. I’m going to try to do just that, and I definitely want you to call me out if my tone is off.Eating out is one of the areas I see the most preventable single-use waste, so I figured I’d start with that (I also love talking about food haha). I’ll be also sharing some photos/experiences where I did end up creating preventable waste, and how I later remedied it, or what I could’ve done better.

6 Ways to Reduce Waste While Eating Out

Crêpes on a table with cider, salad, and blue napkins

A pretty solid meal here, in terms of waste. I suppose reusable napkins wouldn’t have hurt though!

1. Eat in instead of taking out, if possible.

I’m probably one of the biggest offenders of this, especially when I’m solo traveling. I don’t mind eating at restaurants alone, but sometimes I just want to eat in a quieter setting (in my room, on my bed lol) and save time waiting for service. In the U.S., this is not only a time-saving issue, but also a money-saving one, as we’re expected to tip 15-20% for service.

If you do have the time, and the extra money, consider eating in instead. If that’s not possible, consider bringing your own containers, utensils, or bag for takeout. Remember that there are also some self-service restaurants that don’t require tipping, and also have reusable utensils for dining in. One of my favorites in Columbus is Northstar.

2. Order something that doesn’t need utensils (or at least creates less waste).

Regardless of whether you’re eating in or out, another way to reduce waste is to order a dish that doesn’t require utensils. This could mean ice cream in a cone instead of a cup, or a burrito instead of a burrito bowl.

Yellow and purple flowers, purple wallet, and ice cream on a marble table
This bowl and spoon are actually compostable, but it’s always better to avoid single-use anything, even if it’s compostable. I ordered my ice cream in a cone the second time around 🙂

3. Take your own utensils and cup if the restaurant only has throwaway cutlery.

Unfortunately, eating in doesn’t always save much on waste, as some restaurants use single-use cutlery and dishes even for dining in. If this is the case, bringing your own silverware helps reduce waste. Bringing your own dishes is also an option, though it might seem more extra than just bringing silverware (but being extra for the environment is good!).

If you’re unsure of whether a restaurant has reusable utensils, check online reviews and their photos. Previous customers have likely posted photos of their meals, so you can see if the restaurant uses straws or disposable cutlery, that way you know to bring your own or not.

There’s one thing I wanted to point out about boba/bubble tea specifically: I know bringing reusable straws is becoming mainstream, but I think bringing your own cup should be too! Obviously, carrying around a cup isn’t very convenient, but if you know you’re going out for bubble tea, take a large mason jar or tumbler along. I recently picked up a $1 mason jar at the thrift store so that I could avoid using throwaway cups when getting drinks.

4. Refuse plastic straws and drink lids. 

If you don’t want to carry around your own straw, you could just refuse straws–most of the time, you don’t need one (unless it’s for bubble tea). Straw use is a good thing to check from review photos, so you know to mention “no straw, please” after ordering your drink or not. Even if you don’t know, you can still add that you’d prefer not to have a straw. I recently made this mistake, and my water came out with a straw already in it 🙁 Lesson learned!

Another unnecessary piece of plastic is drink lids, especially if you’re dining in (I’m specifically referencing the half-spherical lids for smoothies, though this applies to other lids too). This is something else you can add after ordering your drink–“I don’t need a straw and lid.” Even if you have to use a single-use cup, at least you save a straw and lid from ending up in the landfill. Some restaurants will recycle plastic, but reducing should always be the first line of defense. We can’t be sure that everything recycled actually gets recycled, unfortunately.

Rice bowls from Bibibop
Not the most aesthetic photo (we’re messy eaters haha), but I try to get my family to take reusable silverware each time we eat here. I also got to use my collapsible cup from the North Face Endurance Challenge! We did take two paper soup cups and two cups for water, so next time I’ll remember reusable water bottles and a small bowl.

5. Bring a Tupperware and bag for possible leftover food.

Takeout boxes are often styrofoam, which is neither recyclable nor reusable. If you plan to eat out, it doesn’t hurt to take a small tupperware with you, just in case there are leftovers.

As a bonus, you can take others’ leftovers if they don’t want them to bring home. If you don’t want yours, ask others at your table if they want them. I have a serious wastetarian friend who even takes leftovers off other tables!

6. Decline more water if you won’t drink more.

This is more of a tip for Americans, as waitstaff comes around and fills your water, even if your glass is still half-full, and even if you didn’t ask for it. If you’re not planning to drink more water, feel free to say that you’re good and don’t need a refill.

Veggie poke bowl
While this takeout meal had all compostable elements, it’s again better to avoid all single-use items. I plan to start keeping a fork in all my bags, rather than only my large travel backpack.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this gave you some useful ideas! As a final note, I want to encourage you to leave feedback on Google or Yelp if a restaurant could improve their sustainability measures; the more customers who urge them to change, the more they’re likely to do something. If a restaurant is doing sustainability right, also point that out in a review–it’s important to support eco-conscious businesses as well.

One thing that bothers me about the sustainability movement is how it almost uniquely individualizes the responsibility to be eco-friendly. I agree that we should take individual responsibility, but I also think that companies and industries should be held more accountable.

The individualization of responsibility shifts the focus away from the companies and onto the consumer, which avoids the root of the problem. Those with the most power to stop excessive waste are the industries themselves (and lawmakers). We would reduce so much more waste if the government banned single-use plastics for dining in, or if the restaurants themselves switched to reusable utensils and gave discounts to customers bringing tupperware for takeout, etc.

Unfortunately, it also is our individual responsibility to hold these industries accountable (they sure won’t hold themselves responsible). One way to do that is to give constructive feedback to restaurants through reviews, and to support the businesses doing things right.

The more you talk about these issues, whether in reviews or in real life, the more aware people become. The first step is really just helping people and companies become more conscious of their environmental impact, so that they might be inspired to change.

Are there other ways you reduce waste while dining out? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. I’m very aware of not coming across strong and shaming as that would never be my intention, only to have discussion and share good practice- I remember you getting a bit defensive with me over running eco-issues once when I was only wanting to have a discussion and not having a good at running at all- I was mortified you thought I was having a go- so I get the need to make that disclaimer. Today, we went to a cafe which is only serving in disposable containers which we didn’t know last time we went there- I kept the milkshake cups from last time in the car and we were able to reuse them today so I was so happy! We both brought our bamboo cutlery packs and our own straws which made a little saving on waste- still ended up with cardboard containers though (it was a sandwich so I was not expecting that!) so I brought them home to compost! It is hard at the moment with companies not wanting to risk infection but it can be done.
    Great post.

    1. Haha yes, we had a discussion about the waste at races! I do agree it’s something that should be improved, but I think I was feeling sensitive because I’d read a thread of people bashing running at the time, and saying it was all a waste of time and resources just so people could feel good about themselves for running a few hours. I didn’t think it was very kind at all, and totally overlooked how meaningful and life-changing running can be. Everyone has things they enjoy that aren’t necessarily good for the environment, so I didn’t think it was fair either (like vacations).

      But yes, it is an interesting time for reusable containers and single-use waste. I haven’t been great about it lately, as most places still require calling ahead for takeout, and they package everything beforehand. And for my ice cream post, I chose to get cups instead of cones since I was sharing with a friend. I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to reuse your containers though, and have been careful about it!

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