Fast food packaging waste is the stuff legends and landfills are made of. Thanks to plenty of bad press, many of the big chains have cut back on polystyrene use over the years, but they're still pumping out dumptrucks of disposable tree-based boxes and plastic clamshells that take hundreds of years to break down.
And while all that waxed wrapping paper looks harmless, it's often coated with non-stick, grease-resistant chemicals in the same family as Teflon (Burger King stopped using the chemical in 02, and McDonald's recently announced it would follow suit).
What if you said no to all that packaging and brought in your own container? While reusable travel mugs are common sights in coffee shops, you don't see a lot of people walking out of restaurants with their colas in cantines or their fries in Tupperware.
Maybe we're afraid of being scoffed at or regarded as goofs. Some might also think that with all the fuss about health regulations there's no way you can bring containers from home.
According to Ontario Food Premises regulations, though, you're free to bring your own "multiple-use utensils." That would include drinking glasses, bowls, plates, silverware, chopsticks or whatever, says Toronto Public Health manager Jim Chan.
And what happens if someone gets sick due to his or her own shoddy container-cleaning technique? "It's the same as people who buy takeout and keep it in the trunk for three to four hours and become ill," says Chan, implying that you can't blame others for your own stupidity.
Still, the final say on your ability to lessen your takeout footprint is at the discretion of the individual business owner who might interpret your actions as either eco-conscious inspiration or attempts at future litigation.
Thankfully, what I encountered on my tour of takeout is that you don't make anyone's job more difficult, you might get a discount and you leave most people happy that there's one less bag of waste going to a landfill.
McDonald's, Queen and Spadina
Ordered: Big Mac Meal
The experience: Initially, I thought there was no way to stop McDonald's containers from cradling my food, but the server placed my fries in one reusable container and an unwrapped burger in another as if it were standard procedure - a surprisingly smooth transaction.
Waste spared: Burger box, fry box, cup lid, straw, paper takeout bag.
Waste produced: Wax-lined drink cup. Unfortunately, the somewhat vacant server was on autopilot with my drink, so it didn't click that the reusable bottle I put on the counter was the one I wanted him to fill with pop.
Head office says: Nothing, and didn't return numerous calls.
Manager Roman says: "We will put it in McDonald's paper, and if you want you can transfer it on your own. We're supposed to give things to you in a McDonald's cup or a McDonald's fry box. We follow McDonald's policies."
Burger King, King and Dufferin
Ordered: Whopper Meal Deal
The experience: Confusion! At first the cashier had no problem with my unorthodox request, but then proceeded to put my wrapped burger and full fry box in my reusable container, clearly defeating the purpose. This Burger King had self-serve pop machines, but the server insisted I use one of their cups. She also wanted me to take their little ketchup packets with me. After refusing to use her cup, I felt like I'd done something wrong and tried not to look back.
Waste spared: Wax-lined paper cup, takeout bag.
Waste produced: Waxed paper burger wrapper, fry box.
Head office says: Nothing. Canadian head office shut down; Miami, Florida, head office never returned calls.
Shift manager Nicole Leung says: "It's environmentally friendly. I remember a customer came with a plastic box and it was fine."
Wendy's, Yonge north of College
Ordered: Chicken Grill Combo Meal
The experience: The server had no problem saying yes to my request, but my sandwich came on a plastic salad lid. The manager said he wasn't wearing gloves and that was why he didn't directly place my sandwich in my reusable container. But how did he put it on the salad lid without touching it? Same excuse was used for my fries, but there's a scoop for putting fries into paper cups. When I asked to have my clean water bottle used in lieu of a wax-lined cup, the server mumbled something about health regulations. This aggravating fiasco definitely didn't make my meal the way I wanted it.
Waste spared: Burger wrapper (but the salad lid was probably worse for the environment in the end), drink lid, straw, takeout bag.
Waste produced: Drink cup, plastic salad lid, fry box.
Sharon Reid from head office says: "Our preference would be to serve it in what has been approved by our quality assurance department in terms of safety and healthy serving containers.'
Tim Hortons, Queen across from City Hall
Ordered: Soup And Sandwich meal
The experience: Staffers were very friendly and accommodating. A turkey sandwich was carefully placed in my plastic container, and a bun for my soup was thrown in with it. The coffee in a mug was a no-brainer. The only thing to remember with fast food places is that the moment you order, someone down the line is making it. As I was simultaneously pulling out my reusable bowl, 10 feet away my soup was being poured into styrofoam. The server noticed the mix-up and quickly apologized.
Waste spared: Sandwich wrapper, coffee cup, cup lid, soup bowl lid, takeout bag.
Waste produced: Styrofoam soup bowl (though it was really my fault).
Greg Skinner from head office says: "I've never heard of this. I'll find out." (He might have, but never let me know the final answer.)
Subway, Bloor and Keele
Ordered: Footlong Chipotle Southwest Cheese Steak Combo
The experience: At first I thought the server was giving me attitude about putting up with my request, but I realized he was just an all-round surly guy. He questioned the volume of my container but squished the hoagy in there without a problem. Subway, like Burger King, also has self-serve drink fountains in many restaurants, and in this case he just told me the volume of their cups and I poured the appropriate amount into my bottle.
Waste spared: Sandwich wrapper, plastic takeout bag, drink cup, lid, straw.
Waste produced: Potato chip bag. (This casualty could be avoided by taking the cookie option.)
Les Winograd from head office says: "Honestly, I don't know [about home utensil regs]. It might be something for our legal department to delve into. If it were more common we'd probably have an answer right at our fingertips."
Green Mango, Yonge and Hayden
Ordered: Steamed rice drowned in a delicious chicken curry
The experience: Quite pleasant. I just handed the servers a big plastic box and they filled it with food. The meal came with a side salad, and it wasn't a problem to push aside a corner of the dish and toss a salad in there. I eat here a lot, and this time was one of the nicest. Most of their drinks come in bottles or cans, so I opted to fill my bottle with the free water available near the condiments.
Waste spared: Big styrofoam takeout tray, plastic bag, chopsticks.
Waste produced: None.
Dai Phung from head office says: "I don't have a problem. It's good for the environment to bring your own container so we don't have to use something that creates more garbage."
Fresh by Juice for Life, Richmond and Spadina
Ordered: 500ml Negril Beach smoothie in a 1-litre Nalgene bottle. Also ordered a black bean burrito and sweet potato fries in separate containers.
The experience: The cashier was cheerful and impressed by the concept of not wasting takeout containers. Mine were taken to the back and came out with delicious food in them. I felt good about what I was doing and got a nice discount!
Waste spared: Paper fry box, plastic clamshell container, plastic smoothie cup, takeout bag.
Waste produced: None.
Deborah Hochman from head office says: "If you bring in a container for a takeout order you get 15 per cent off."
Richtree Market Restaurant (formerly Le Marché), BCE Place
Ordered: Salmon steak on a bed of fried rice, side Caesar, hot chocolate
The experience: Saturday brunch is a busy time, but asking to have food placed in my containers wasn't problematic. Where it can get complicated is with weighing things and letting staff decide whether your container counts as small, medium or large. The server first said he'd charge me for a medium but changed his mind to small - perhaps because he loves his planet? Unfortunately, my hot chocolate was measured out in a styrofoam cup and then poured into my mug. The cashier, however, was pleasantly surprised by my methods, exclaiming, "You're saving the environment!" as she rang up my bill.
Waste spared: Plastic salad bowl (biodegradable and corn-oil-based), plastic entrée bowl (VERSAtainer reusable and recyclable), plastic bag.
Waste produced: Styrofoam cup.
Brad Shehan from head office says: "There's no written policy on it. I can't imagine that anyone would bring in a container better suited than what we have. Maybe it's good that you raised this point, and I think we'll consider that at senior management now."