We’re living through a golden age of ordering in. The greatest hits of global cuisine are a few thumb swipes away, and as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps restaurant dining rooms closed, having pho, pad thai or falafel delivered to our homes is now the only way to eat when we don’t feel like cooking. And once we’ve devoured our comfort food, cleanup is a cinch — just toss that pile of greasy plastic containers, wadded paper napkins, chopsticks and sporks in the trash and recycling bin.
Long before the coronavirus struck, it was already clear: Americans love to eat restaurant meals outside of restaurants. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that more than half our collective food budget goes to meals away from home — about $930 billion in 2018. And according to the National Restaurant Association, in 2019, “off-premises dining” made up about 60% of all restaurant transactions. Globally, online orders alone have been projected to grow tenfold from 2018 to 2030, to $365 billion.
The coronavirus seems to be feeding the trend. As the weeks pass, more Americans are picking up food at restaurants, according to Gallup polling. The market research firm CivicScience finds consumers reporting more use of food delivery since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the online ordering platform GrubHub reported 20% more daily orders in April than in the same month last year, with a doubling of business in some parts of the country, outpacing its growth in the first quarter as the pandemic started.
But though our growing reliance on takeout and delivery may ease some of the stresses of the coronavirus shutdown, it also compounds a longer-simmering crisis: the environmental impact of all those foam clamshells, polypropylene bowls, condiment packets and disposable cutlery.
More than a century of American innovation has bestowed upon society a vast array of single-use products engineered for the convenience of both restaurant and customer — and ruinous to wildlife and global ecosystems. Even as COVID-19 has us clinging to our dine-at-home dinners — carried out curbside or delivered at a social distance and left, contactless, on the doorstep — it’s abundantly clear that if we keep up our carryout habit without figuring out a more sustainable model, we’ll end up burying the planet in trash. Is this what we asked for? And can we change our order?
How Takeout Took Over America
“Off-premises dining” has roots in ancient times. The remains of about 150 carryout counters known as thermopolia were found in the ruins of Pompeii, although what exactly they served — and how it was packaged — is unknown today.
Street stalls have served up quick meals in Asian capitals for centuries, and there’s evidence that Aztec entrepreneurs hawked tamales on the streets of pre-Columbian Mexico. Fish and chips, the British takeaway staple dating to the 1860s, was historically wrapped in the previous day’s newspaper, an economical if not exactly hygienic packaging. In colonial India, an army of dabbawallas formed to deliver hot, home-cooked lunches in stainless steel canisters, called tiffins, to white-collar workers at their desks. They still move millions of meals through Mumbai and other cities every day.
The American takeout story begins in San Francisco. In the years after the Civil War, as fortune seekers flocked to the West Coast boomtown, a bustling restaurant scene quickly developed to accommodate them. Most of these establishments catered to single men, while respectable ladies were expected to dine at home. But that didn’t mean they spent all their time in the kitchen. As the magazine Overland Monthly reported in 1868, women, couples and families frequently avoided “the fuss and fumes of cooking about the house” by having “their food brought to them by servants from the eating-houses.”
By the early 20th century, Americans’ increasing mobility, combined with innovations in disposable packaging, took ordering to-go to new heights, as box lunch counters servicing rail travelers and sandwich carts parked outside factory gates evolved into the fast-food industry we recognize today.
“In 1927, White Castle began advertising its sliders as a convenience for working families, with the tagline, 'Buy ’em by the sack!'”
“The 20th century is when takeout takes off and becomes extraordinarily common,” said Andrew Haley, a professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of “Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class.”
As immigrants from around the world settled in U.S. cities, restaurants serving international fare were among the first to rely heavily on takeout, Haley said. That was in part because white people liked the new and exciting flavors but felt uncomfortable eating in the restaurants themselves. The food was also well-suited to traveling off-premises.
“Chinese restaurants were on the cutting edge of food made to order quick and easy, stir-fried up and out the door in a few moments,” Haley said, adding that the inexpensive dishes, often heavily sauced, stayed hot much longer than the era’s typical restaurant meals, which tended to center on single cuts of meat. Chinese dishes also traveled well in the folded paper “oyster pails” originally developed in Chicago in the late 1800s to hold oysters, then a popular street snack. The cartons would become an instantly recognizable symbol of takeout culture.
Another meal that lent itself well to transport was the hamburger. In 1927, Kansas-based White Castle — now a nationwide chain of 377 restaurants — began advertising its sliders as a convenience for working families, with the tagline “Buy ’em by the sack!” printed on the side of an insulated paper bag.
After World War II, Americans’ twin love affairs with cars and television — dining in a restaurant might mean missing Ed Sullivan, after all — led to further advances. The first drive-through, believed to be at Red’s Giant Hamburg in Springfield, Missouri, opened in 1947, slinging brown bags of burgers through a window. In the 1970s, Domino’s Pizza helped the next generation of suburban Americans become accustomed to the idea of a driver arriving at their door with a boxed-up pie “in 30 minutes or it’s free.” (The little plastic thing preventing the cheese from sticking to the cardboard wouldn’t be invented until the ’80s.)
Haley noted that, despite marketing campaigns aimed at families, as late as the 1970s takeout was primarily enjoyed by single people and childless couples, who “perhaps … wanted to have a quick meal on their way to the disco.”
But over the last quarter of the 20th century, he said, takeout appealed to a growing number of working mothers and single parents who were relieved to have the option of picking up dinner on the way home from work.
By the 1990s, 60% of married couples with children relied on two incomes (more than twice the proportion who did in 1960). Takeout was increasingly a family affair and part of what Haley described as “a treadmill existence.”
“To have that middle-class life, where you could afford takeout, you had to have both people working — so you needed takeout,” he said, adding that the habit has only become more embedded. “And as the things we do with our children have increased exponentially, that has just added to the pressure” to opt for a quicker and easier dinner option.
It’s not just about getting the kids to soccer on time — fewer Americans of any demographic are cooking these days. One 2019 survey, conducted by June, an oven manufacturer, found that only 20% of Americans cook daily and that eating itself has become far less formal. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they grew up eating dinner at the table, while today fewer than half do; almost a third take most of their meals on the couch.
“Only 20% of Americans cook daily.”
If cars and television could be credited with the rise of the drive-through in the middle of the 20th century, then the equivalent equation for the 21st century might be sofa plus internet. The first online order of any kind was a Pizza Hut pie in 1994 — at least according to Pizza Hut, which along with rivals like Papa John’s and Domino’s led the restaurant industry’s march online. By 2009 the major pizza chains were making as many as 30% of their sales electronically. Two years later, a survey by Cornell University found that nearly half of fast-casual chains, like Panera Bread and Chipotle, and 22% of fast-food chains in the U.S. had adopted some form of electronic ordering, whether through mobile apps, websites or Facebook.
Today, 90% of Pizza Hut’s business comes from off-premises orders, and its parent company, Yum Brands, is replacing hundreds of the signature “red roof” restaurants with takeout units. Even casual chains like Applebee’s and Bertucci’s that had previously focused on sit-down diners have begun setting aside their most convenient parking spots for curbside pickup.
And, once again, the takeout story brings us to San Francisco, home to three of the four largest mobile app-based delivery services, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats. (Grubhub, which owns Seamless and went public in 2014, is headquartered in Chicago.)
Pandora’s Molded Plastic Box
Naturally, alongside the proliferation of eateries offering to-go meals over the decades, there has been a parallel innovation in the way those meals were packaged to move. While 19th century San Franciscans might have had a servant return tableware to the restaurant when they were finished with their meal, by the middle of the 20th century, disposable wraps, boxes and bowls were the order of the day. A new food packaging industry was born, plying quickness, convenience and an all-important perception of hygiene.
Around 1900, a Kansas doctor was appalled to see train passengers drinking water out of a common dipper. He launched a campaign that led to laws in multiple states banning the potentially infectious practice. In 1908, a Boston inventor came up with a solution: A stack of so-called Health Kups, made of waxed paper, could be provided alongside water coolers to be discarded after a single use. By the 1920s, manufacturers had followed up with paper bowls, paper food wrappers and wooden utensils for enjoying ice cream, hamburgers and sandwiches at picnics, lunch counters and snack carts.
In the 1950s, manufacturers began molding expanded polystyrene beads into light, cheap vessels that could help keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. The material — commonly, although incorrectly, referred to as “Styrofoam” — cannot easily be recycled and persists in the environment for thousands of years, maybe more. In 1988, Suffolk County, New York, passed the nation’s first ban on polystyrene foam — along with plastic bags — for food products sold by restaurants, delis, bars and grocery stores. (The legislation was quickly overturned, but it may just have been ahead of its time.)
The 20th century set a dizzying pace for packaging innovation, but the 21st has exceeded even the wildest imaginings of previous generations, for whom takeout and delivery usually meant Chinese American food, sandwiches or pizza.
“If you think about the food items that were available for delivery two decades ago and contrast that to now, the options have grown exponentially. And so the packaging for those options has become much more specific.”
“If you think about the food items that were available for delivery two decades ago and contrast that to now, the options have grown exponentially,” said Hudson Riehle, head of research at the National Restaurant Association. “And so the packaging for those options has become much more specific… to ensure product integrity is maintained. Restaurant owners don’t want to take the risk that their packaging fails, so packaging will only continue to become more sophisticated.”
Today, an ever-expanding array of vessels is manufactured to hold everything from soup to sushi, avocado toast to chopped salad, for the short trip from restaurant counter to desk or table, and finally to garbage can: molded plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, along with fiberboard bowls, insulated soup containers, clear plastic clamshells and beverage bottles, single-serve sauce cups, handled cardboard caddies and disposable bento boxes.
A durable plastic bowl with a tight-fitting lid is great if you want to keep your ramen hot and well-contained on a bumpy bike-delivery ride to your front door. But the problem comes after dinner, when most of that plastic — although often recyclable in theory — heads from your home to the landfill.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, packaging (primarily but not limited to food packaging) accounts for 30% of America’s municipal solid waste, amounting to 80 million tons in 2017. That’s nearly three times what we tossed in 1960, when record-keeping began.
The numbers are likely to get worse as the pandemic exacerbates an already-brewing waste crisis. Despite the premise of the recycling logo manufacturers stamp on most single-use plastic containers, less than 9% of the plastic we dispose of in the U.S. gets recycled. Globally, nearly 9 million tons of the stuff finds its way into the ocean every year.
As consumers become increasingly cognizant of the scourge of plastic waste — pushing for straw bans and toting canvas bags to the supermarket — a growing hunger for sustainability may be driving restaurants to adopt greener alternatives. By 2018, nearly three-quarters of restaurants were buying recycled packaging or other supplies, and more than half were spending money on compostables. Chefs across the country declared “eco-friendly packaging” the industry’s No. 1 trend for 2020 in a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association.
“With a million restaurants across the country, packaging is one way to distinguish your operation from the competition,” Riehle noted. “Especially when you serve younger patrons, their basic expectation is that that restaurant incorporate some aspect of sustainability.”
It’s clearly a trend if McDonald’s has embraced it. In 2018, the world’s largest restaurant chain announced that by 2025 all of its packaging would come from “renewable, recycled, or certified sources” (meaning materials certified as not contributing to deforestation).
Still, exactly how to make takeout green remains an open question.
“'Eco-friendly packaging' was declared the restaurant industry’s No. 1 trend for 2020.”
Some jurisdictions, including the European Union and China, recently enacted bans on single-use plastic containers for food and drinks, moves that will likely spur the restaurant industry to switch to paper-based or compostable packaging. But though these materials may be biodegradable in theory, they still don’t break down easily in the environment — especially corn- or sugarcane-based plastics. These require industrial composting operations, not a simple backyard bin, and even cities with municipal compost collection don’t always have facilities that can handle them.
Meanwhile, because the items appear recyclable, well-meaning consumers often put plant-based plastics in the blue bin with petroleum-based plastics, which contaminates the recycling stream, a growing problem that actually leads to more items not getting recycled.
Molded fiber bowls, like those used by the restaurant chains Chipotle and Sweetgreen, may seem a more eco-friendly option, but these, too, can have a downside. Last year, The Counter, a nonprofit investigative journalism website focused on the food industry, found that these bowls contained PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a category of chemicals linked to cancer. And not only do they pose a danger to consumers, but PFAS never break down in the environment, which means they will contaminate any compost the bowls become part of — an attribute that’s earned them the moniker “forever chemicals.” (Sweetgreen and other chains that use the bowls have since announced they would phase them out.)
“These compostable containers are already not adding value to the compost — it’s greenwashing,” said Lauren Sweeney, co-founder of a Brooklyn-based start-up called Deliver Zero, which partners with New York City restaurants to send food to delivery customers in plastic containers that it claims can be washed and reused 1,000 times. “Our goal is to make it really easy for the customers to make the more sustainable choice. And at no extra charge.”
The company provides containers to restaurants in exchange for a 10% commission on food ordered through Deliver Zero’s online platform, which amounts to the same or less than other delivery apps. Customers can return the containers either in person or when they receive their next delivery from any participating restaurant. (If they fail to do so, they’re charged $3.25 per container, Sweeney said, noting, “It’s only reusable packaging if it actually gets reused.”) Meanwhile, restaurants save money on disposable containers, which can cost as much as 75 cents each.
Other startups have developed reusable containers for coffee and certain groceries, as well as food delivery in a handful of other cities, including Portland, Oregon, where the app-based delivery service GO Box works with several dozen eateries. These businesses effectively resurrect a system that harks back to San Francisco’s Gold Rush-era restaurants, while also taking a page from India’s dabbawallas, who collect their tiffin boxes after lunch to wash and reuse. Sweeney believes such reusables will become more common in the coming years as customers and businesses get used to the idea and as the impact of disposables becomes impossible to ignore.
“COVID fears have led to major changes in plastic use. The industry has exploited fears to try to convince policymakers that plastic is safe and reusables are dangerous, neither of which is true.”
What progress the industry has made, however, threatens to be undone by the COVID-19 pandemic as fear of spreading the coronavirus has put a damper on reusables. Just four months after it launched — and a few days after Sweeney spoke to HuffPost in March about the company’s plan to expand into Manhattan — Deliver Zero suspended operations, explaining on its website, “In an effort to reduce contact among New Yorkers, we’re going into hibernation mode. As painful as it is, we want to curb the amount of contact among our restaurant partners, delivery couriers, and our customers.”
Deliver Zero was not the only reusable effort to fall victim to COVID-19. Last year the New York-based restaurant chain Dig introduced a program called Canteen, in which customers paid a monthly fee to be able to take a reusable bowl off premises, but a spokeswoman said that program had been suspended as well. Meanwhile, the plastics industry is taking advantage of the pandemic to push the material’s putative hygienic value.
“COVID fears have led to major changes in plastic use,” says John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “The industry has exploited fears to try to convince policymakers that plastic is safe and reusables are dangerous, neither of which is true.... Quite a few businesses have added extra layers of throwaway packaging or even suspended reusables.”
Once the pandemic ends, Americans will emerge from our lockdowns to a reshaped restaurant industry. And we, too, may be reshaped. Perhaps cabin fever will drive us out in socially distanced droves to eat in restaurants again (those that manage to reopen), where we will savor the conviviality along with the sounds of real silverware tinkling against china. Perhaps the fear of contamination will stay with us, and we will cling to single-use food and beverage containers, wincing at the thought of how many other people might have touched a metal fork or a porcelain mug to their germy lips.
What is certain is that our problem with plastics is not going away on its own, not for thousands upon thousands of years. As we recalibrate the status quo, how to reduce the waste we create must be part of the calculation.
“We should not be using unnecessary throwaway plastics — for momentary convenience and a false sense of security — that will exist in our environment for lifetimes,” Hocevar said. Our choices now “will have consequences on our environment and our health for generations.”
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