One of my biggest pet peeves about going to a restaurant is all the packaging that comes with ordering takeout or getting a doggy bag. I don't want a 12-inch box for one slice of pizza or a huge plastic foam container that I can't recycle.
So I really like the idea behind Platos Table. The St. Petersburg company has developed a reusable, plastic box to use at restaurants as an alternative to single-use containers. The boxes, which are BPA-free, microwaveable and dishwasher safe, come flat for storage and fold up with snaps.
Co-founders Sheree Graves and Lela Garnett started the company about two years ago to reduce the amount of containers and packaging that wind up in the trash. They developed the box, which has a patent pending, and recently started marketing them to restaurants and consumers.
"The amount of waste in packaging that we generate is phenomenal,'' Graves said. "I won't buy some things because of the amount of packaging. This is about changing people's behaviors.''
This week, coincidentally around Earth Day on Monday, the boxes go on sale at Rollin' Oats Market & Cafe in Tampa and St. Petersburg. They are also available online at reusers.com for $5-$8, depending on the size and style.
Company officials hope the boxes become as commonplace as the reusable bags shoppers bring to the grocery store to cut down on paper and plastic bags. They cite statistics showing containers and packaging make up 30 percent of all trash, much of it polystyrene foam that takes a gazillion years to decompose.
So far, more than a dozen restaurants in St. Petersburg have partnered with Platos Table to accept the boxes for leftovers and takeout orders. To encourage customer participation, each is offering an incentive, like a free drink or meal discount.
Ciccio's California Cuisine joined the program to help the environment while also reducing its packaging costs. Managing owner Patty Miles hopes it will be a hit among customers, especially regulars. Anyone who brings in a Platos box will receive a free soda.
"I think it's a great idea,'' she said. "Anything we can do to lessen our footprint is something we're interested in.''
Eventually, as more people become familiar with the boxes, Miles envisions customers keeping a box at Ciccio's with their name on it, similar to a reusable coffee or beer mug at a cafe or bar except that they take it home.
Restaurants could also buy their own inventory of boxes to circulate. Customers who bring in an empty box can swap them for a box full of food — a concept already in place at some college campuses, Graves said.
I see the boxes working best as doggy bags you fill up tableside. Takeout seems a bit trickier and takes some coordination. Platos Table recommends asking the kitchen to plate your food until you get there and can load it into your box. You could also have the restaurant wait to finish your order.
I suppose, like most things, if there's a will, there's a way. People used to forget to bring their bags to the grocery store. Now, for many of us, it's second nature.
Feeling green? Here are some other eco-friendly initiatives happening at local retailers in honor of Earth Day.
• Ikea in Tampa is celebrating a day early, on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. with sidewalk chalk drawing, face painting and samples of organic coffee and chocolate. Friends from the Lowry Park Zoo will visit from noon to 2 p.m. and hold drawings for free zoo tickets. The store is also offering buy-one-get-one free LED bulbs to Ikea Family rewards members. In-store displays will highlight the store's sustainable products, solar panels and other green programs.
• Grow Financial federal credit union is giving away 12-inch Florida slash pine saplings at all of its branches on Earth Day. Limit five per household, while supplies last. Go to tampabay.com/letsgrowtogether.
• As part of its ongoing efforts to make "Earth Day every day,'' Evos restaurants are offering free organic milkshakes all day long. The cups, by the way, are biodegradable.
• Bring in five or more plastic bags to a Disney store on Monday and receive a free Brave or Cars 2 reusable tote, retail value $3.50. While supplies last.
• To sow some seeds of change, Pottery Barn Kids in Hyde Park Village is passing out free flower seeds on Earth Day.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3110.