How to Get Takeout Without Ruining the Environment: Sustainable Food Packaging in Marin

Takeout can be fast, easy, and delicious… but the packaging! Some of it will last for centuries after being used for just a day or two at most, some of it looks like compostable cardboard but has plastic lining, and some plastic-looking items claim to be “compostable” but aren’t. These guidelines will help Marin people sort takeout trash and spot the most sustainably packaged takeout options in Marin.

The first thing to know is that polystyrene packaging can’t ever be recycled and is banned in Marin County and the cities of San Rafael, Mill Valley, Novato, Fairfax, and Sausalito. 

Sustainable Packaging
Sushi Ran

Second, plastic containers (apart from bottles) are rarely recycled and (in Marin) never composted. Our composting facilities only take biodegradable organic materials in order to ensure high quality certified organic compost for our local organic ranches, farms, and vineyards. That’s why in Marin, even ”bio-,” “compostable,” and “plant-based” plastics go to landfill, as do stealth plastics: so-called “wax paper” and any container that looks like cardboard but has a smooth shiny lining. 

Sustainable Packaging

Third, reusable is best. Start carrying utensils, straw, and beverage containers in your bag or car so you’ll have them handy. You can also bring food containers: the 2019 “Bring Your Own” bill explicitly allows consumers to bring their own reusable food containers for refill by the food facility. Or get takeout from zero-waste pioneers like San Rafael’s Lotus Cuisine of India, which has an innovative reusable packaging program using traditional Indian stacked metal containers called “tiffins.”

When you want to order:Watch out for:Consider trying: 
Sandwiches and wrapsPlastic clamshells and wax paper.Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper aren’t perfect but a low-waste choice, and clean foil can go in your recycling bin.
SaladsPlastic and plastic-lined cardboard boxes. Also, watch for polystyrene, which has been banned in the County of Marin and the cities of San Rafael, Mill Valley, Novato, Fairfax and Sausalito. Sweetgreen packs salads with unlined biodegradable boxes and lids.
SoupsNo sustainable option except glass or metal. Good Earth sells its soups in mason jars — return the clean jar and get money back.
Hot mealsAlmost all hot meals come packaged in plastic or plastic-lined cardboard. Bring your own packaging or look for aluminum containers that can be cleaned and recycled.  
BurgersPlastic-lined cardboard packages and “wax paper.”Good options include recyclable foil, biodegradable paper envelopes (Amy’s), and biodegradable cardboard boxes (Gott’s). 
TacosSince these are dry they can be packaged in biodegradable cardboard.Pacific Catch and Gott’s are just two places that package tacos in biodegradable cardboard.
BurritosGreat choice: These are almost always wrapped in recyclable aluminum foil. Enjoy anywhere! Just put the cleaned aluminum foil in your metals/plastic recycling bin.
SushiMostly packaged in plastic but that’s not necessary because sushi is dry.Sushi Ran packages some of its sushi in thin wooden boxes. 
CurriesNo sustainable disposable option.Bring your own container or participate in Lotus Cuisine of India’s innovative tiffin packaging program.
Chinese Those traditional Chinese takeout boxes are lined with plastic.Bring your own container.
PizzaAlways a great choice! Just put those cardboard boxes in your compost cart, not the paper recycling.Enjoy anywhere!
BeveragesNo sustainable single-use choice. Bring your own container. 
Baked goodsPlastic containers and clamshells.Many local bakeries use cardboard boxes that are either biodegradable or recyclable (if clean). 

Anne-Christine Strugnell

Anne-Christine Strugnell is a Marin County-based writer whose work has appeared in MORE Magazine, Self, the Christian Science Monitor and the Cup of Comfort series. In 2019, awareness of the climate crisis drove her to focus on climate awareness work with Resilient Neighborhoods, Environmental Forum of Marin and the Climate Reality Project.