Small actions of change: taking your own food containers

For years I’ve been taking my own grocery bags to the shops, glass jars to bulk foods stores, and my reusable cup for takeaway coffees, but it’s only since participating in Plastic Free July last year that I thought about taking food containers to other places.

Bringing your own container isn’t limited to the reusable cups and glass jars I was used to. They can be plastic, stainless steel or glass containers with lids, reused paper and plastic bags, boxes or cloth bags (and probably even more I haven’t listed).

Now the local butcher, fishmonger, bakery, deli, sushi shop, cafe (and even The Dog’s favourite stall at the Farmers’ Markets, Mr Bones), are used to me asking them to fill my own container.  And – bonus – putting food straight into the container you’re going to store it in makes unpacking easy.

Plastic tub holding rissoles
In a previous life, this large food-grade plastic tub used to store Lego. Now it’s my go-to for trips to the butcher. The lid seals well which is a must. It can hold a whole chicken or a whole lot of rissoles.

Taking your own containers may seem awkward at first. Your bags will be full going to the shops, which takes some getting used to. Glass containers clink around and can be heavy. You may receive some strange looks and experience some unhelpful shop staff. Be polite. They are just trying to do their job.

Having said that, I find the response to asking for the food I’m buying to be placed in my own container to be almost always positive.

It’s great to see this trend moving to other places. We’ve enjoyed filling our growler with beer from breweries we’ve visited.

reusable container for purchasing and storing coffee beans
We bought this stainless steel container from our local cafe a few years ago and get them to fill it each time we buy coffee beans

For items that benefit from special treatment, it may be worth investing in a specialised vessel, like a growler for beer, or this coffee bean container. The two lids exclude air from the beans, keeping them fresher for longer.

But as always, start with what you have. Check your ‘Tupperware’ drawer – you may have some old takeaway containers you could reuse.  Glass jars are amazing, can be salvaged or handed on for no cost, and can store pretty much everything, including food in the freezer.

Jars of lentils, chickpeas and rolled grains
Repurposed glass jars filled with goodness at the bulk food store make unpacking easy

Consider refills

We take our olive oil bottle back to the stall at the markets and they happily refill it for us.

The macadamia stall at the markets doesn’t have bulk oil or nuts there to refill containers on the spot, so we drop our oil bottle or nut container (a repurposed ice cream container that’s at least three years old) off one week and collect it following week. We also pay less for the oil because we’re not paying for the bottle.

We keep our paper mushroom bags and refill them with mushrooms until they fall apart.

If you can’t refill, ask if you can return

At our Farmers’ Markets, stalls such as the dog food and the blueberry stalls happily collect our old containers and punnets and reuse them. The plant stall also reuses old plastic plant pots.

Start a conversation

I realise a lot of examples here are from our Farmers’ Markets. The nature of markets means many stallholders may share similar goals to reduce plastic use. Our local butcher and fishmonger are very supportive of folk bringing in their own containers. They know to tare the container on the scale and to use tongs to place the food in. But what about in your mainstream supermarket deli?

Tammy at the excellent resource Gippsland Unwrapped has really researched the legal ins and outs of this topic in this post What the law says about using your reusable containers. And reading what a Triple J Hack journalist found out from Department of Health, Coles and Woolworths on this topic suggests we may have more luck approaching smaller stores rather than the big chains.

You can always ask. Starting a conversation, explaining why you are doing what you are doing, may not change things right away (or it might!) but if enough customers ask these questions and have these conversations, retailers will start to take note.

Through many of us chatting with our butcher, those of us requesting plastic-free chicken necks for our pets have come to a solution. We drop off a container and pick it up full the following week.

Reusable plastic container full of raw chicken necks saves single-use plastic bags, wrap and trays
Chicken necks for The Dog, sourced single-use plastic-free through our local butcher

Doggy bags for restaurant leftovers

We rarely have leftovers when we eat out, but we’re trying to remember to bring a container just in case we want to take home any food we can’t finish. Now that we’re even more determined to reduce our food waste, my Mum’s tendency to wrap uneaten banana bread in a cafe’s serviette and put it in her handbag for later no longer seems silly!

Do you take your own food containers? I’d love to hear what others are doing – please share in a comment!

2 Replies to “Small actions of change: taking your own food containers”

  1. So many great ideas! I heard the JJJ report on the radio and found it really interesting, especially the expert who talked about the risk of contamination from unwashed containers being really minimal so it can’t be used as an excuse by companies who refuse to refill. I’ve just changed work locations from an industrial area to a cafe strip so I have relocated my old keep cup and also found an old lunch box that might do the job for snack fills. 🙂


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