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Foodie Friday: Ottawa, we need to talk about take-out containers

By Chris Cline on April 19, 2013

So, I’m one of those annoying, unabashed foodie types that waxes on about the merits of things that are cooked sous-vide while en route to the newest chic taco joint. As a devotee of all things tasty, I inevitably find myself leaving a restaurant with a take-out container filled with the night’s left-overs, which are often too delicious to leave for the green bin – or worse yet – the dumpster. And it’s the makeup of these containers that often irks me, and is the subject of the first ever Foodie Friday rant.

Styrofoam. The bane of every environmentalist’s existence. How something so chemically complex ever managed to become so cheap and freely available, I’ll never understand. And it’s for these reasons that you’ll see Styrofoam take-out containers in restaurants and food vendors across the land.

I’ll concede on one point: every time I walk out of a restaurant with a sack full of little Styrofoam nightmares, I’m partially to blame. I could have decided to go to another, more environmentally-friendly establishment. Or I could carry around reusable food containers in the event that I might find myself in need of a mobile dinner solution, as some people already do.

But let’s be honest. In order for the shadowy, secretive Styrofoam cabal to crash and burn for good, we’re going to need more than just concerned citizens with a penchant for preparedness to take action. We need each and every food-serving establishment in Ottawa and beyond, from the most modest food truck to the priciest fine food destination, to take a stand against the styro-structure hegemony.

Look at the great plastic bag crash of the late 2000s. It wasn’t until businesses decided to explore alternatives that people stopped hoarding thousands of single-use bags, dusty and forgotten forever, in some dark corner of their basements. That’s not to say that plastic bags no longer exist, but the sea of change that has since taken place is proof that change is always possible.

Fortunately, there are non-styro alternatives. Biodegradable, compostable containers seem to be making strides in recent years. In fact, they’re becoming more and more common in Ottawa, especially in higher-end establishments. But for full-scale adoption to take place, I think we need to look at take-out containers, and their true costs, in a completely different way.

We’re used to take-out containers being free, and this is part of the problem. Cost must be a huge part of the equation for businesses when they’re making decisions about which containers to stock. Containers don’t necessarily equal higher profits for restaurants, so why invest in something environmentally-friendly when they’ll just be forced to give them away in the end? In this case, the cost should be passed down to the consumer.

That’s right, I’m actually advocating to have to pay every time I decide to take my food out as opposed to dining in. I would happily pay for an environmentally-friendly container every time, if it were an option. Actually, scratch that. It shouldn’t even be an option. As long as we’re hooked on to the idea that someone else should pay for our own convenience, things will never change for the better.

Some local foodie havens are already practicing this. The Green Door, Main Street’s best (and only) organic vegetarian establishment, has been charging its customers a small fee for environmentally friendly take-out containers for years. The best part about the Green Door’s options are that they’re reusable for a period of time, so the value you receive actually goes above and beyond the single meal you purchased the container for. (Editor’s note: they also offer a free alternative.) It’s this kind of thinking that can change the idea that take-out containers are throwaway, one-time-use products. The Green Door should be applauded for this.

You may think I’m totally wrong about this, and that is absolutely within your right. But either way you cut it, Styrofoam has been clogging landfills, consuming major amounts of natural resources and potentially contaminating our food for years. Admittedly, the alternatives aren’t perfect either, but their adoption would be a step in the right direction. And it’s up to us annoying foodie types to make it happen by voting with our wallets and making our views about Styrofoam take-out containers heard.

What do you think Ottawa? Is a modest fee for green take-out containers the way to go, or should I just stop worrying and learn to love the styro-bomb?