Q: I eat a lot of takeout — I mean, a lot. We’re talking four nights a week, maybe five. Recently, while watching Confessions of a Shopaholic for the 60th time over beef stir fry and egg rolls, I got to thinking — what is the greenest take-out container? Plastic containers? Cardboard? Definitely not Styrofoam, right? Is there one take-out container that’s the greenest of them all?

A: I hear ya, sister. I eat a lot of takeout myself. It just tastes better when there are no dishes to clean. And when it comes to take-out containers, there are definitely ones that are a cut above the rest and ones that fall long short of the pack.

You are correct in thinking that Styrofoam is not as green as we would like. Styrofoam, created in the 1940s by Dow Chemicals is, shall we say, the most evil of all takeout containers, and yet surprisingly, is still commonly used. You see, Styrofoam does not biodegrade —ever. In other words, that Styrofoam cup that you’re using to drink that vanilla latte will actually live longer than you will.

And get this, when Styrofoam is weighed after being used to store hot food, it actually weighs less than it did originally. That’s because the chemicals from the Styrofoam leech into the food or drink (making it lighter than before), and take up residence in the fat cells in your body (after you drink that delicious vanilla latte, that is). Yum, right?

Another common takeout container? Plastic. Like the kind you’d get at a salad bar or the kind used to hold your chicken soup from the local deli. On a scale of one to terrible, plastic is just OK. It is generally recyclable, but there are harmful chemicals used in the production of plastic (most notably BPA) that can sometimes leech their way into your food if you reuse the container too many times or microwave food in it. Seems like a catch-22, doesn’t it? You’re trying to do the planet good by reusing your plastics, but it turns out you’re not doing your body any favors in the process.

What about cardboard containers, like the one your oh-so-delicious beef stir fry comes in? Well, most recycling programs don’t accept cardboard that’s been contaminated by food, but you can try and donate it to your town’s composting program, where it will usually get accepted. Or if you dare, try composting it yourself.

Not every takeout container is so terrible, though. More and more restaurants these days are using recycled paper and plastic containers, and I say kudos to them for doing so. Using recycled products takes less energy to make and saves trees. Not only that, it creates less pollution than using virgin products.

Finally, if you want to be really eco-friendly, try bringing your own container to the restaurant. (If you’re going to the restaurant, that is, and not getting it delivered to your doorstep). If you have some aluminum foil or a small Tupperware container in your bag (I smell an excuse for a bigger purse …), you can pack up your leftovers in that. In fact, many coffee shops will gladly fill your mug from home with their own freshly brewed coffees, and what could be better than sipping your favorite latte from your own Sex and the City limited-edition mug? No fat cell-clogging chemicals, no BPA, and no landfill-cramming garbage. Sounds like a winner in my book.

— Chanie

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Photo: Mykl Roventine/Flickr; MNN homepage photo: DNY59/iStockphoto

What is the greenest take-out container?
The most environmentally friendly take-out containers are the ones made from recycled paper or plastic. Or bring your own Tupperware.