As global markets make the recycling equation more complicated, I, like a lot of consumers, have been looking for ways to stop gathering so much disposable junk to begin with. I figured a logical place to start would be all the paper, plastic and Styrofoam that come with my daily meals.
But my own past reporting told me this wouldn’t be easy in Chicago. Back in 2011, I wrote about a “bring your own container” store in Chicago that vowed to keep operating despite Chicago Department of Public Health prohibitions on using reusable containers to purchase bulk goods. The store eventually closed.
So when I contacted up the Department again earlier this month, I got a surprise. Those rules have changed.
CDPH spokeswoman Elena Ivanova wrote: “The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) adopted new Food Code Rules on February 1, 2019. These rules are based on the national standard and best practices. According to Rule 3-304.16, refilling returnables such a drinking cups for soft drinks is allowed. The Food Code does not prevent the use of containers provided by the customer from being used for bulk food products from a grocery store. According to Rules 3-306.13, consumer self-service food that is ready to eat should be dispensed in a method that prevents contamination.”
I was thrilled, but also a little shocked.
In 2011, the CDPH medical director insisted that allowing people to dispense bulk goods—like dried beans or popcorn—into their own container could lead to sickness outbreaks. But Bill Marler, one of the nation’s leading food safety attorneys, told me he’d never heard of such a case in all his years—even in municipalities that allowed reusable containers. When I called him this month to get an update on his 2011 statement, he said the answer is still “never.” He even pointed me to grocery chain in Montreal that is making “bring your own container” a part of its business practice.
Armed with this new information, I called up my local Whole Foods to ask if I could use my own containers at the store. The manager insisted it was against the rules.
When I identified myself as a journalist and told him it was no longer against city code, he told me to call the regional and national Whole Foods offices. There, no media representatives would talk to me about this or return my calls. Turns out, the Whole Foods press email address is also a black hole if you are asking about reusable containers. Weird.
So I avoided Whole Foods and turned to a local store that welcomes reusable containers: The Dill Pickle Co-op in Logan Square. Here a friendly guy greeted me at the door, weighed my containers, marked their weights on the lid and set me free in the store to shop. I filled my containers with French lentils, bread flour, a liquidy shea butter soap, kombucha, chocolate chips and freshly ground peanut butter that slithered right into my glass jar.
It was an inspiring experience, so later that morning I boldly packed up my Lula Café leftovers in a metal tiffin right at the table. My server approved.
The final frontier would be takeout. The new code seems to suggest it’s OK, but multiple calls and emails to the Chicago Department of Public Health asking for clarification on takeout rules went ignored for weeks.
The environment, however, could not be ignored a second longer. So Worldview host Jerome McDonnell and I ventured out to some of the most recognizable Chicago and national chains on Navy Pier to give it a try.
We were able to get broccoli cheddar soup ladled into our metal tiffin at Potbelly. We were able to get a medium order of fries scooped on to our reusable plate at McDonald’s. We were able to get a hot refill of coffee in our reusable Starbucks cup at, well, Starbucks.
But we struck out at Giordano’s. Even though we’d called in our pizza order with the explicit instructions to not box it, we found it in a box when we arrived. In the restaurant’s defense, I did find a missed call from Giordano’s on my cell phone time stamped about 10 minutes before we arrived for pick up. It’s very likely that someone was calling to confirm our bizarre request, but I am not sure. That said, the Giordano’s manager said he’d be happy to put the pizza on a plate or pan for us in the future.
So is there still a gray area when it comes to reusable containers in Chicago? Maybe. But the laws are moving in a more sustainable direction, and most food workers we met seemed to want to help—even if they probably thought we were a little odd.
But if more people try to reduce their waste this way, maybe the notion won’t seem so odd anymore.