Eating on the go without making trash: yes we can


Ten easy ways I avoid waste when eating on the go. Plus, what I do when I end up with trash I didn’t want. 

Too often, eating on the go can result in a mountain of trash.

If you’ve ever done a waste audit, you’ll probably quickly realize that waste generated from feeding ourselves is 80 – 90% of the issue. And for once I’m not talking about compost. I’m talking about plastic forks, straws, toothpicks, parchment, styrofoam, little umbrellas in your drink, etc.

And it’s not just plastic either – even if we replace these materials with those that have a better afterlife, like bamboo cutlery and paper bags, there are still significant impacts in land use, manufacturing and transportation. Plus, how much of that ‘earth friendly’ packaging ends up anywhere but landfill anyway, hmm? Given the choice of plastic or paper, yes I’d choose paper, but my favourite choice of all is no packaging.

Ten ways to minimize waste when eating out

A little forethought and a couple of reusables are all that I need to avoid the common types of food related landfill fodder.

1. Eat in

Enjoying our food makes it more nutritious for us. Usually it also means less garbage. Usually.

Australia's cafe culture is still dine in friendly.
Australia’s cafe culture is still dine in friendly.

2. Bring a kit

I carry reusables in my handbag. They are light and don’t take up much space. Plan according to what you think you might need. Strolling along the coastal walk might mean a reusable cup, hiking might mean a beeswax wrap for cookies, and grocery shopping means a lightweight reusable bag.

Mt. Kozzie cookie
Beeswax wraps are lightweight and perfect for hikes.

3. Take it naked

When life hands you a croissant, just take it.


4. No cuppy, no coffee

If I don’t have a cup, I don’t get a coffee – simple. Or I dine in (point #1).

reusable cup
I work less than a block away from the nearest cafe, so I take an office mug.

5. Pack snacks 

When I’m hungry, I’m more Godzilla than Ghandi so I pack snacks to avoid the temptation of packaged items or unrelenting hangriness. My boyfriend appreciates this.

These bliss balls are made from leftover pulp from making nut milk. Search the site for the recipe.

6. Ask for ‘no straw please’

Think ahead when ordering something typically served with a straw, like a juice, smoothie, bubble tea or anything on ice. In North America, even a simple glass of water is likely to be served with a straw (or two!!). If you can’t live without one, bring your own metal or glass straw.

coffee with straw take 2

7. Take home leftovers

I bring my own container to restaurants to avoid food waste without creating any new container waste. Bonus: lunch is made for the next day.

I will never understand how anyone can eat an entire bowl of ramen in one sitting.             It’s. Too. Much.

8. BYO container

If I get takeout, I just bring my own container. It’s not weird.

Zero Waste takeaway
Wecking the reusable angle

9. Bring home compost

Very few restaurants in Sydney recycle their food scraps. I take mine home to my own compost.

leftover lemons

10. Refill from the tap

Sydney’s tap water is fresh tasting and clean. Single use bottled water is completely unnecessary.

Departures area refills.
Departures area refills.

What to do when you’re given trash you didn’t want

Sometimes, even when we are ultra clear about asking for no single use packaging (and it’s not even busy, and we give them our reusable cup, and we smile nicely, and, and, and….) it happens – we’re served with packaging we didn’t need or want.


Don’t let it ruin things.

One disposable cup does not a complete failure make. A lifetime of dependence on single use cups is the real issue.


If I end up with wrapping or trash, I recycle or compost everything that I can. For example:

  • Greasy or food contaminated brown paper can be composted.
  • Unsullied brown paper packaging can be reused for groceries or bulk food shopping, then recycled.
  • Paper napkins can be composted.
  • Wooden chopsticks, toothpicks or cutlery can be reused in the garden, composted, or used as kindling for lighting a fire.
  • Foil can be recycled.
  • Plastic coffee cup lids can be recycled in Sydney’s commingled kerbside recycling (the cups can’t be recycled though – you could use them to start seedlings for your garden).
  • Soft plastics can be recycled through the Redcycle drop boxes at the front of Coles stores.

Be nice (and clear)

I also try to impart why I’ve asked in the first place. As frustrating as it can be to be given trash I didn’t want, ranting won’t help. I try to make it a connection and teaching moment to build allies behind the counter. If we want others to join us in practicing living a low waste lifestyle, we have to show that it’s fun, doable, and ultimately about empathy. We are over-served packaging because that’s what ‘good service’ currently means to most cafes. Asking for less waste helps to communicate that no trash is how customers want to dine. They’ll adapt.

Living low waste is the way of the future

There is no reason eating a meal should result in any material waste other than a few food scraps for the compost, at home or when we’re out.

One day our restaurants and cafes will be closed loop masterpieces that embrace Zero Waste operating principles. Visionaries like Joost Bakker have already proven it possible. The rest of the industry just needs to catch up.

But for right now, the idea of living without making trash is new to most people on all sides of the delivery counter. The good news is, usually once they understand the reason behind it, they’re into it and will want to help. That’s been my experience here in Sydney. By packing reusables and taking a firm, but polite, stand on unnecessary single-use packaging, I’m demonstrating that it is possible and it’s not actually that difficult.

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