If you feel a bit confused about how exactly to go about bringing your own containers for takeout or groceries, the following guidelines should help. Please don’t let the long detailed instructions put you off from trying this. The short version of these instructions goes as follows: bring your container and politely make your subversive request.
Your local café may fulfill your order in one of two ways.
- After you hand a staff member your cup or thermos, they will fill it with your beverage and hand it back to you.
- Place your cup or thermos on a tray. The staff member fills it without touching it. You remove the drink from the tray and go on your merry way.
In some cafés, when you make your request—“Please put my drink here”—your barista may tell you they will put your drink into a throwaway cup, which you would then transfer to your cup or thermos. Well, that wastes more resources than a throwaway cup alone—you now have to waste water washing your thermos. Remain calm and explain the purpose of bringing your own cup. The hardworking staff does not make the rules. Or ask to speak to the manager. If enough of us do this, things will change.
Typically, restaurants don’t want customers placing orders in advance online or over the phone as they have nothing to pack the food into after they have cooked it. So, place your order in person. Depending on how the restaurant operates, a staff member will:
- Fill your containers directly after you hand them over.
- Slide a tray toward you which contains your plated order and some utensils. You will then scrape or scoop the food from the dishes into your containers.
Even if you dine in at a café or restaurant, please support those businesses that allow BYO for takeout and let them know you appreciate their efforts. They could stick to disposable, single-use everything—which saves time—but want to reduce their impact on the environment.
When you dine in, you may have leftovers due to obscene American portion sizes. Reduce both food waste and packaging waste by refusing the restaurant’s single-use, disposable, take-home containers and bring your own reusables with you. Fill your containers with any leftovers on the table. Tomorrow’s lunch is packed and ready to go! You do not need the staff’s permission or help with this.
Metal tins and glass containers work well in bakeries. Depending on what you buy, you may want to bring a glass jar (I’m thinking Mexican wedding cookies in a large glass jar filled to the brim). A cloth produce bag works well not only for loose bread but also for bagels, buns, croissants and so on.
Bulk bins and refill shops
Take your containers to customer service or a cashier, depending on how the store deals with BYO containers. Staff will weigh the container and mark the weight on it—the tare. Be sure to do this! Because you pay for your bulk items by weight (generally), you don’t want to add the weight of the jar to the price of your item.
Some bulk and refill shops set out scales around their stores to enable customers to weigh their containers and mark the tares themselves with supplied stickers and pens.
Jars work well for everything, but especially for:
- Liquids: olive oil, honey, maple syrup, dish soap, castille soap, shampoo, conditioner and so forth.
- Staples with a fine texture: flour, sugar, ground spices, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, salt and so on.
Store-bought produce bags usually have the small tare imprinted on them. If you make your own produce bags, you could embroider the tare onto them. First, you’ll need to calculate the tare weight.
- If you have set your scale to ounces, weigh the produce bag and divide the weight by 16 to calculate the tare.
- If you have set your scale to grams, weigh the produce bag and divide the weight by 454.
You could also take your produce bag to customer service and ask them to measure the tare weight. Back at home, mark the tare permanently on the bag.
Cloth produce bags work in almost any store and you won’t have to worry about the tare nearly as much. For example, my homemade produce bags weigh about 33 grams—a tare of .07. A large jar can weigh 454 grams—a tare of 1.0. The odd store will take off a nickel for each bag you use.
Fill cloth produce bags with bulkier bulk items, such as beans, lentils, oats, rice, wheat berries, rice, nuts, seeds, popcorn, chocolate chips…
Delis, meat and fish counters
Bring your metal or glass containers or glass jars to the counter. I do have a large Tupperware container from the before times (before I purged plastic) and I’m not about to throw it out. So I sometimes use that as my BYO container.
The staff will place your container on the scale and zero out the weight, then fill it with however many pounds of cheese or potato salad you requested. Depending on which deli you patronize, the staff may place a sheet of parchment on the scale, weigh your cheese on that and then either place it in your container or have you place it in your container. Some will use a sheet of plastic. Yes, it’s a waste but much less waste than if you bought your food the standard way—in lots of packaging.
If the prepared food vendors allow BYO, bring your own utensils to eat with. You can roll them up in a cloth napkin or make one of these handy utensil rolls. For ordering food in your own containers, see the restaurant section above.
To buy farmers’ market produce, simply fill reusable cloth produce bags with your fruit and vegetables. Protect delicate produce, such as strawberries, by transferring the berries from their plastic or paper boxes to jars or containers you bring with you, then hand the baskets back to the vendor. Jars keep your berries intact and prevent you from inadvertently making jam on the way home. Produce bags don’t afford this same level of protection—but they can work well if you’re careful.
Some vendors sell items in bulk, such as nuts or dried fruit. Have them tare your jars for you before you fill them up or use produce bags.