Fairfax County wants restaurants to reuse plastic food containers—and it needs your help

ShareWare could launch as soon as this summer.

© liliyabatyrova / stock.adobe.com

It started with plastic straw bans. Now, all sorts of single-use plastics are being legislated out of existence. But, restaurant-goers still need a way to take home doggie bags.

Eating restaurant leftovers is a way to save money, and it helps keep perfectly edible food out of the trash. Stretching that mantra to a plastic-free existence is basically impossible if taking home uneaten food.

It’s illegal for customers to bring in their own clean containers and fill them, according to the federal Food and Drug Administration Food Code, a 767-page document detailing how to deal with everything from food labeling, to plumbing systems, to foodborne illnesses.

Food safety is a public health issue, and though that Tupperware straight from the dishwasher might be clean, getting it from the house, to the car, to the restaurant, means it could have picked up germs or any number of communicable diseases along the way. An exception, and a boon to the thermally insulated bottle companies of the world, is customers can bring in their own container for coffee. It’s also OK to fill up on liquids from self-serve soda fountains with personal bottles.

Still, local jurisdictions try to minimize the environmental impact of take-out containers. DC banned plastic straws, polystyrene—what we know as Styrofoam—and restaurants are also required to sell food and drinks in recyclable or compostable containers. Virginia hasn’t implemented any new regulations, but Fairfax County is opening the code to a new program under its climate health initiative, or, to be specific, adding language to “Section 3-304.17 Refilling Returnables.” It’s called ShareWare.

“Containers are very relevant to public health,” says Pieter A. Sheehan, environmental health director of Fairfax County Health Department’s Division of Environmental Health. And, plastic containers are wreaking havoc on the environment. According to Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society, 91 percent of plastic waste isn’t recycled. And, states Earth Day Network, “since most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, all that plastic waste could exist for hundreds or even thousands of years.” This is why reusing plastic matters.

ShareWare will create a looped system between restaurants and diners. Once that restaurant-grade plastic quart container of egg drop soup is finished, the diner cleans it and brings it back to any restaurant participating in ShareWare. The restaurant then sanitizes it according to code and can fill it with someone else’s takeout pho. Sheehan estimates up to 80 percent of containers could stay within the ShareWare program through the year, a major win in reusing plastics.

Like the sudden rise of the stainless steel straw segment, Sheehan sees this initiative as a business opportunity. Private companies, not just restaurants, can be deemed a ShareWare establishment, and can become hubs of cleaning and redistributing containers. Frontier Kitchen, a food incubator in Lorton, and whose members include food truck owners, already showed interest.

The new code will go in front of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors by early summer, and will be implemented as soon as it’s approved.

Sheehan, who came up with the program, found inspiration in Durham, North Carolina’s GreenToGo, and hopes this will “move the businesses in ways that are more environmentally conscious.” It’s also, of course, educating the dining public. “It’s really about changing the consumer. We all kind of have to change a little bit.”

This article was originally posted in our Cheap Eats feature in the May 2019 issue. Want more food content? Click here to subscribe to weekly newsletter.

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