Takeout has been a lifeline for local restaurants this year, providing vital revenue amidst dining shutdowns and capacity restrictions. 

Colorado restaurants are reporting that about 30 percent of income currently comes from takeout, up from an average of 15 percent during pre-pandemic times, according to a recent survey of 135 establishments conducted by the Colorado Restaurant Association. Not surprising: 76 percent of restaurants, per the survey, say they hope to grow their takeout and delivery operations this winter. 

But what’s good for our favorite eateries is, unfortunately, very bad for Mother Earth. Thanks to an abundance of disposable packaging and single-use containers, even the most modest to-go orders can create mini mountains of trash. 

“Any single-use packaging, even if it’s recyclable or compostable, is going to have negative environmental impacts,” Kate Bailey, the research and policy director at recycling nonprofit Eco-Cycle, told 5280 via email. Even so, recyclable and compostable containers are a better choice than their cheap styrofoam counterparts—so long as the containers end up in the correct disposal bins. 

There isn’t any data on how many takeout containers have hit local landfills during the pandemic, but we do know that Denver households are generating more garbage than usual this year. As of August 31, residential waste (meaning everything thrown into trash, recycle, and compost bins) retrieved by Solid Waste Management was up 11 percent compared to the same timeframe last year, according to Heather Burke, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure. That translates to an additional 14,209 tons of material tossed over the past eight months. 

It’s unclear if overall waste volume has changed this year (Burke doesn’t yet have that data, and increases at the household level may be counteracted by decreases elsewhere) but one thing is certain: The current model for takeout—and the disturbing amount of refuse it can generate—isn’t sustainable. 

Ryan Fletter, owner of Barolo Grill and Chow Morso Osteria, is well aware of this issue. Early in the pandemic, Fletter couldn’t help but notice the sheer volume of takeout container waste accumulating at his home. “I just immediately magnified that times 300 million people and went, wow, we’re gonna have a real eco problem quickly, just because of COVID.” 

That realization, coupled with the fact that his staff was churning through boxes of disposable rubber gloves as a precautionary measure against the virus, convinced Fletter to continue buying compostable takeout containers—something he’s done for years—as he scaled up to-go operations at both of his restaurants. 

It wasn’t easy. In March and April, supply chain issues made it impossible to consistently source eco-friendly packaging. “Much like toilet paper, everybody started hoarding and what we were buying one week, we couldn’t buy the following week,” Fletter says. But in time, the market settled and Fletter says both establishments now use 100-percent compostable bowls, lids, and plates from Eco-Products. Prioritizing compostables “just feels like the right thing to do,” Fletter explains.

To encourage similar practices at Boulder restaurants—and to support the area’s economic recovery—the City of Boulder launched a subsidy program in September that awarded local eateries $1,000 grants to purchase compostable and recyclable takeout containers. The now-evaporated funds were distributed to 74 spots, including Café Aion, where owner Dakota Soifer says it made a big impact. “Like most restaurants, we’re pivoting pretty hard to increase takeout, and when cash flow is low, it’s hard to make an investment in the new revenue stream,” Soifer explains. (At Café Aion, nearly 60 percent of all business is now takeout—up from just 5 percent pre-pandemic.) “So just having free product dropped off makes a huge difference for us and [we] feel a little better about scooping food into to-go containers when at least it’s not styrofoam.” 

Tiffins from Somebody People. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Chorpenning

For many restaurants, price is a big barrier to using eco-friendly takeout containers. “It can easily cost you $2 to package a $10 item if you’re using compostable, recyclable-quality containers,” says Frank Bonanno, owner of Bonanno Concepts (Mizuna, Osteria Marco, Denver Milk Market, and others). Bonanno says he uses  recyclable plastic and non-recyclable containers but not very many compostable ones, because of their high cost.

It is possible to obtain reasonably priced eco-friendly containers, explains Zac Swank, business sustainability coordinator at Boulder County, but finding such options requires time and energy—two resources in short supply for the average restaurateur right now. So Swank and his colleagues at Partners for a Clean Environment (a government-funded service that advises local businesses on sustainability) are currently developing a guidebook to help establishments more easily find affordable, sustainable containers that fit their needs. It will be available by the end of the year, says Swank. 

In the meantime, one-year-old Somebody People in Denver is taking sustainability a step further. The plant-based restaurant offers customers the choice of getting takeout in World Centric compostable containers—or, as an even greener choice, in reusable tiffins sold at the restaurant. 

Somebody People offered the metal containers pre-pandemic, but sales spiked this spring, according to co-owner Tricia Maher. Now, about 40 percent of the restaurant’s to-go orders are filled in tiffins, which run $14 for a two-tier size and $18 for a three-tier. Once a patron purchases a tiffin, it’s theirs to keep. When they order from Somebody People again, they can indicate at checkout that they have a tiffin to exchange. Then, when they pick up their food, they drop off their tiffin (which is then sanitized in the restaurant’s high-power commercial dishwasher) and pick up their order in a clean container. 

Looking ahead, Maher hopes to expand tiffin usage by partnering with other establishments to create a community exchange system. “It’d be cool to see other restaurants hop on board,” she says. “We’d love to work with other people.” Ultimately, such a system looks like the answer for a truly greener future. 

For more information on recycling and composting services in Denver, click here. For Boulder County, click here. And for City of Boulder, click here.