New policy allows Maine businesses to implement reusable food take-out containers

Variety of food takeout containers on counter in front of white background

Recent changes to Maine’s Food Code allow Maine businesses to offer reusable and returnable take-out food containers, giving businesses more options for serving their customers and reducing costs while also helping to curb pollution and protect Maine’s woods, waters and wildlife.

The updated policy is a result of findings from a research project that is exploring the potential for reusable take-out food containers in Maine as part of the Mitchell Center’s Materials Management team. Working with stakeholders, researchers found that provisions in the Food Code were hampering the efforts of interested businesses to offer reusable containers for take-out service. Under the updated code, any establishment regulated by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) Health Inspection Program, including restaurants, workplace and school cafeterias, and mobile food trucks, can provide customers with reusable take-out food containers that can be returned for cleaning and safe reuse.

“With the pandemic and tight labor markets, these are very difficult times for Maine restaurants and the hospitality industry,” said Jared Entwistle, a University of Maine graduate student and former brewery owner who is leading the project. “Maine’s new code allows interested restaurants the freedom to utilize reusable containers for take-out purchases. And research suggests that these programs not only have environmental benefits but can save restaurants considerable money.”

Restaurant and hospitality businesses nationwide are considering reusable food containers to cut costs and stem an alarming tide of plastic pollution from single-use packaging. Disposable food containers represent eight of the top 10 most commonly littered items found in ocean clean-ups around the world, according to the Ocean Conservancy and International Ocean Cleanup.

“The first step in keeping Maine beautiful is to move away from disposable food ware — the dominant source of litter and plastic pollution — and promote reuse,” said Chrissy Adamowicz, Sustainable Maine Outreach Coordinator at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a project partner.

Businesses can provide and clean reusable containers on their own or could choose to participate in a growing number of third-party systems that provide reusable containers with an established cleaning program. View an infographic about how reusable take-out food container systems work.

Businesses that are licensed by the state’s Health Inspection Program and are interested in implementing reusable food containers can reach out to their District Health Inspector or call the main office line at (207) 287-5671.