The City of Philadelphia has a bold goal of becoming a Zero Waste City by 2035, aiming for 90% of the city’s waste to be diverted away from the landfill and commercial incinerators.

Some of the most difficult items to keep out of the landfill are the waste from single-use items or products that are packaged in single-use containers. Food and beverages are common culprits of this take-and-throw habit, from paper coffee cups to polystyrene to-go food boxes – but they don’t have to be! The Philadelphia Health Department has issued new guidance explaining how restaurants and food businesses can safely incorporate reusable to-go containers into their takeout service.

On August 25th, the Office of Sustainability and Circular Philadelphia co-hosted a webinar describing the new rule change that allows food businesses to lend and take back reusable containers. Local businesses ECHO Systems and Tiffin Indian Cuisine shared their expertise at the event, as well.

“By changing our own mindset about moving from disposable to reusable and creating a platform that makes it easy for our customers to participate, the impact will be far-reaching and long-lasting,” explained Munish Narula of Tiffin Indian Cuisine on the impact of the PDPH code change. “We applaud the removal of such unnecessary restrictions on use of the containers which only created a barrier for other restaurants and businesses to do the same. This win also encourages us to develop a broader range of sustainable practices in our own business and help others to do the same.”

Reusable containers can be made of a variety of durable materials including hard plastic, metal, bamboo, or glass. On average, one $5 takeout container can be used over 1000 times, whereas a business might spend $250 on only 875 single-use containers. While many single-use containers display recycling symbols, still 14.5 million tons of plastic packaging was produced in the U.S. in 2020 – and only 14% was actually recycled, according to the EPA.

The webinar covered the details of acceptable container types, washing and distribution guidelines, and the benefits of offering reusable containers to customers. Here are some key takeaways for restaurant and food business owners:

  • Beginning immediately, all existing food establishments in Philadelphia will be allowed to start offering reusable containers without applying for a variance and incurring fees, and new businesses will be required to check off that they are using reusable containers on their Food Establishment Plan Review.
  • All food establishments will be required to follow specific guidelines on washing, drying, and storage of the reusable containers. The complete guidelines were compiled by Circular Philadelphia and ECHO Systems for the Health Department.

The Office of Sustainability has updated the Zero Waste Guide for Foodservice Establishments in Philadelphia to reflect the most recent Health Department regulations about reusable containers. The Guide now also includes tools and resources to help business owners learn more and start using these containers as part of their regular takeout or to-go food service. The Zero Waste Guide for Foodservice Establishments was created by Elizabeth Main of the Fels Institute of Government in 2019.