Old and New Approaches to Take-Out Containers

Painting: The Banquet of Cleopatra, late 17th–early 18th century, Oil on canvas, Gerard Hoet (Dutch, 1648 - 1733), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

An Old Approach from Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, it was common for guests at a banquet or dinner to bring their own container – usually a napkin – and carry something home.  This worked well for everyone, as there were no storage facilities for cooked food and it allowed the host’s generosity to be remembered the next day.

In A Taste of Ancient Rome, Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa includes an epigram from Martial (ca. 38 CE–103 CE) that pokes fun at his friend Caecilianus’s habit of filling his napkin to the breaking point:

XXXVII WHATEVER is served you sweep off from this or that part of the table : the teats of a sow’s udder and a rib of pork, and a heathcock meant for two, half a mullet, and a bass whole, and the side of a lamprey, and the leg of a fowl, and a pigeon dripping with its white sauce. These dainties, when they have been hidden in your sodden napkin, are handed over to your boy to carry home : we recline at table, an idle crowd. If you have any decency, restore our dinner ; I did not invite you, Caecilianus, to a meal to-morrow.    (source: Archive.org)

Ancient Romans didn’t have plastic and paper was an expensive good. But why not ceramic or wooden containers? Carrying wouldn’t be an issue for many Romans: let their enslaved persons carry the containers. However, bringing a ceramic or wooden container to a party seems tacky, as if bonus food is expected. A cloth napkin, however, is a discreet way to be ready for leftovers — it’s folded in your toga if you need it, and not obvious to the hosts.

New Approaches to Take-Out Containers

More than two millennia later, disposable take out containers are taken for granted, an most people don’t think twice about the resources needed to make, deliver and dispose of them.  Some restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are trying to change that.  The East Bay Express recently ran a piece by Food Editor Luke Tsai on several attempts to reduce restaurant waste by swapping disposable take-out containers for reusable ones.

One restaurant profiled in the article is following what you could call the ‘captured container,’ meaning that the container is only useable at one institution.  In this article, the example is West Berkeley’s Standard Fare, which offers a high quality ceramic container for take-away.  It’s only returnable at Standard fare (and you’ll incur a hefty $45 fee if you break one or don’t return it in a reasonable time).  You will see a variation on this approach at the Local Butcher Shop (Berkeley), where they sell stocks and other prepared foods in glass jars that come with a $1 deposit.

The second approach is a more widespread offering – what you might call the ‘networked container’ – is the GO Box, a waste reduction project started in Portland in 2011. It’s fairly simple, nearly as simple as one could imagine.  Vendors sign up for a supply of boxes.  Customers sign up for a membership (and pay an annual fee) and then are allowed to ‘check out’ the boxes at member restaurants using a physical or virtual token. When the box is dropped off at a depository (which might not be the place where it was picked up), a new token is received.

GO Box charges annual subscription fees, with levels that allow you to borrow different numbers of boxes simultaneously (e.g., pay $X for 1 box at a time, $X + $3 for 3 boxes, etc.).  This, in my opinion, is a major shortcoming, as it requires a year-long financial commitment to a relatively small network of restaurants.  What if you lose interest in the restaurants in the network?   Perhaps it would work better if the restaurants footed the operating costs, but that might not be practical because of start-up expenses, even though GO Box claims that the service can be cheaper for restaurants than standard single-use or compostable packaging.

GO Box is designed to comply with health regulations that don’t allow customer-provided containers (i.e., fresh take-out orders).  For leftovers after a restaurant meal, the rules don’t apply and there is a simpler and cost-free approach that I strive to use when I go out to eat (and manage to do so about 75% of the time):  bring my own containers for leftovers.  At the end of each course, I transfer the remainders to the container and set them aside (tip:  if the dish is rice and something, put the something on the bottom and the rice on the top; this way you can simply tip the container onto a plate and it’s ready for reheating).

(Update: 2/8/21) In 2020, the S.F. Bay Area got a new reusable container option: Dispatch Goods (via Restaurant Hospitality). Dispatch Goods provides reusable containers to restaurants in San Francisco — including the legendary Zuni Café, Detroit-style pizzeria Square Pie Guys, and a handful of other — that customers can rent for their take-out orders. After enjoying the food and drink, the customer can drop off the empty containers at a drop box or request a pickup. One of the big challenges for the company is what they call “reverse logistics”: getting the containers back for cleaning and redistribution. Another is supplying the right mix of containers (currently nine sizes) to the participating restaurants. The Restaurant Hospitality article about Dispatch Goods covers these challenges in some detail.

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