Giani Rios, who runs a Peruvian restaurant with his grandmother in Honolulu, doesn’t brand his business as eco-friendly. Instead, the social media presence of Mimi’s Peruvian Cuisine focuses entirely on fresh ceviche and traditional slow-cooked beef.

But Rios says he consciously chose to use reusable glassware and anyone is welcome to bring in their own Tupperware for leftovers.

“I actually had a regular customer ask about this a while back and I told him it wouldn’t be a problem to use his own,” he said. “Saves me the cost of the containers as well.” 

Plastic food packaging is the most common type of trash that washes up on beaches. And food containers and other packaging accounts for almost a quarter of all waste in U.S. landfills

As the movement against single-use containers grows, more people are carrying their own glass or thick plastic containers to restaurants and food trucks. However, this poses a quandary for food workers. Does the health code allow them to pack food into these containers? Or do they have to go against the customer’s wishes and serve the plate lunch on plastic foam?

Right now the code is ambiguous,” said Nicole Chatterson, founder of Zero Waste Oahu. “Sounds like kind of sometimes you can bring your containers to certain spaces but it depends on all of these things that are hard to make sense.”

The family-run restaurant in Ala Moana encourages customers to bring their own containers for leftovers. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

She’d like to see Hawaii follow in California’s footsteps and adopt a law that allows employees at restaurants and deli counters to pack food into customer’s personal containers. The California law specifies the establishment has to have a separate area for washing and packing personal containers and a written policy on how to avoid cross-contamination.

The confusing aspect of Hawaii’s law is that food employees here are only allowed to serve food in personal containers if the customer purchased the container at the restaurant.

“For example, 7-Eleven used to have those giant pick-up containers with their logos on it and that falls under this,” said Peter Oshiro, who oversees sanitation at the Hawaii Department of Health. “Where they provide the consumer the original container and you can bring that container back for the reuse.”

But otherwise a food employee shouldn’t be handling grandma’s Tupperware.

“The rules are designed to protect public health,” Oshiro said. “The worry is that the container has not been properly sanitized and could bring communicable diseases, for example, into clean kitchens that are serving food to many people.” 

The health code differentiates between solid food and beverages, which has allowed coffee shops and smoothie bars to accept almost any cup, mug or jar from customers for years.

“It needs to be easily cleaned and not broken in any way,” Oshiro said.

But the Starbucks barista may reject your mason jar if you ask for a latte. 

“They cannot do anything with milk or dairy inside it,” he said. “You can’t have containers go back and forth under a milk dispenser or anything that could be spoiled.”

“We have to take actionable steps towards big things like climate change and getting fossil fuels out of your life. ” — Rafael Bergstrom, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

Customers can still pack up their own leftovers, or add milk to the coffee themselves. But if a takeout restaurant wants to completely divorce itself from single-use containers and flatware, it’s going to have to get creative.

One model being piloted at University of Hawaii Maui’s campus could serve as inspiration.

Students collect clean, reusable containers made of sturdy plastic from specialized vending machines. The cafeteria and on-campus restaurants can pack food into the containers and when the student is done, they drop off the container at the same vending machine. The containers are collected and sanitized before being returned to the vending machine. 

Oshiro praised the model for its effectiveness.

“The company actually maintains these machines and does the washing and sanitizing,” he said. “It’s a really interesting concept.” 

Chatterson works in the University of Hawaii’s Office of Sustainability and is hoping to bring the Maui program to the Manoa campus. She also thinks the same model could be applied off campus, to entire neighborhoods like Kakaako or downtown Honolulu.

Almost 100 restaurants in Portland, Oregon already participate in such a program, run by a private company called Go Box. Customers pay a monthly fee and can drop off their dirty containers at about two dozen locations across the city.

In Portland, Go Box subscribers can return their food containers to be washed and re-used. Go Box

The company charges participating restaurants 25 cents per container, which it says is cost-neutral compared to buying single-use food containers. 

Chatterson said a similar program in Hawaii could reduce costs for state government as well. 

“San Diego is paying $14 million a year to clear their storm drains of packaging and clean beaches, and they have about the same population as the state of Hawaii,” Chatterson said, citing a statistic from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Chatterson and her colleague Rafael Bergstrom, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, said it would be more cost effective to set up reusable container programs across the island rather than continue clearing food packaging from storm drains and beaches.

“The challenges would probably be high up front because it’s a lifestyle change and businesses will have to change,” Bergstrom said. “But just like the plastic bag ban — I promise you in five years most people are going to forget that they ever used to use plastic bags.” 

Bans have been an effective way to change consumer behavior, which is why Bergstrom said he supports Bill 40.  The measure, currently being considered by the Honolulu City Council, would ban a host of single-use plastics and polystyrene foam typically used at restaurants and coffee shops. 

Reducing the number of takeout boxes and plastic coffee lids not only decreases the likelihood that plastic waste will accumulate in the ocean, it also helps combat climate change.

Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and one forecast says the oil and gas industry is set to increase its plastic production by as much as 75% by 2022.

“We have to take actionable steps towards big things like climate change and getting fossil fuels out of your life,” Bergstrom said.

Plastic trash is so prevalent in the ocean that it has washed up in large quantities on Kamilo Beach on the Big Island. Civil Beat

Polystyrene foams are currently banned on Maui and Hawaii island, but Bill 40 is opposed by the Hawaii Food Industry Association and Hawaii Restaurant Association. 

“The alternatives to plastic utensils are also not always available in the quantities that Oahu businesses need,” the Hawaii Food Industry Association said in a written statement, adding that some plastic use is necessary to comply with health standards. 

Instead, the associations advocate implementing a small fee — 10 to 15 cents — if a customer wants single-use packaging or utensils. 

For consumers looking to remove single use containers and utensils from their dining experience, takeaway restaurants are currently off-the-table. If you’re eating in, some restaurants offer discounts if you use your own container for leftovers, and there are a number of bulk grocery stores across the islands that encourage customers to bring their own jars, produce bags and containers.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.  

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author