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Confessions of a Takeout Container Hoarder

Supporting restaurants right now through takeout is an easy choice. It’s throwing away the resulting containers that’s hard.

Two black plastic takeout containers. NisanatStudio/Shutterstock
Nick Mancall-Bitel is an editor at Eater overseeing travel coverage and the international maps program.

In the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family prepared nearly every meal at home. We took on ambitious kitchen projects, meal-prepped for lazy nights, baked at least two loaves of bread a week, and developed work routines that left plenty of time for cooking each evening. Of course, our collective energy eventually flagged and ambitions shriveled, so my family caved to the temptations of takeout. Meals now end not with the scrubbing of pots and pans, but an existential crisis over what to do with all the containers.

As takeout orders have mounted, so too has waste. Containers of all shapes and materials come swaddled in plastic. Little baggies of utensils arrive unrequested and depart the house unused. Straws occasionally make surprise appearances. To handle this seemingly needless waste, we recycle and reuse as much as possible. We cram the fridge with repurposed plastic deli containers full of leftovers, both from restaurants and homemade meals. Empty ones are washed and stowed in the cupboards. Our reusable cloth napkins gain new bedfellows with stacks of white paper napkins. We squirrel away plastic utensils for socially distanced picnics.

I’ve also formed too many opinions about the ideal container. It should be rectangular, no longer than nine inches, and flat on top (no huge rounded corners). Small containers should be slim enough to fit two side by side on top of large containers. Standard round deli containers are great for stacking. Wider round containers are no good to me, but I store them just in case. (Just in case what? I’m not sure. I guess if I get a new fridge with different proportions.) Containers holding neutral-smelling dishes that don’t leave any residue are easiest to clean, but I’m willing to scrub for an absurdly long time to recuperate a tainted container, sometimes returning to a stubbornly odorous one the next day to give it another shot.

I’ve begun to wonder about the limits of my eco-warrior ambitions. Used containers have slowly annexed several kitchen drawers, displacing Tupperware entirely. Towers of containers lean disconcertingly over the edges of the refrigerator shelves, and extracting an item has become a bit like Jenga — except the penalty for disturbing the fickle pillars of food is an explosion of orange chicken on the floor.

This borderline obsessive behavior doesn’t come from some prepper instinct or fear of shortages at the Container Store. It’s a desire to make something useful and positive out of the detritus kicked up by the pandemic. The ridiculous drama that plays out in my kitchen around these containers, though, shows how COVID frustrates even simple ambitions.

Takeout containers are daily reminders of the ways the pandemic overlaps and escalates ongoing crises: the breakdown of recycling in the food system, the ways people mistreat restaurant workers. They represent a few of the small decisions — from those of us who have the luxury of relative safety at home — that contribute to the momentum of society as a whole. Based on how I’ve fared in the kitchen after only a few months, I’m concerned.

My family offers help, at least when I bully them into helping. We do our best. Still, the trash bin tells no lies. Many containers aren’t recyclable, and many that are recyclable are too soiled with food. Our stomachs can only handle so many leftovers. Our fridge and cupboards can only fit so many deli containers.

My parents, both over 60, aren’t ready to face dining at a restaurant, even outdoors, as cases in California speed past 600,000. Nor am I willing to stop supporting independent food businesses by not ordering takeout. Ultimately, a few plastic containers are small potatoes in the midst of massive cultural, social, and economic upheavals. But let’s hope we emerge from the pandemic with a renewed sense of urgency to tackle the climate crisis on a scale larger than my Tupperware drawer, especially in massively disrupted food systems. In the meantime, I’ll just be here scrubbing plastic containers and cramming the fridge, trying to not feel too guilty one way or the other.