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Maine approves restaurants' reuse of takeout containers

Only packaging designed and manufactured to withstand refilling are permissible.

Restaurants in Maine have been cleared to reuse some food and beverage to-go containers in what’s believed to be a first-of-its-kind effort to cut litter.

Under a change in the state’s food safety codes, packages returned by customers can be sanitized and refilled with a food or beverage. The containers must have been designed and manufactured to withstand reuse, and cannot be put back into service until they’ve been cleaned, sanitized and inspected by an employee of the establishment.

In addition, the package can only be reused by the restaurant that initially provided it.  But a returned container can be refilled for a customer other than the one who returned it.

Restaurants have long been searching for ways of keeping single-use cups, food containers and utensils out of the waste stream. Much of that effort has focused on development of a reusable coffee cup, a quest supported by such industry giants as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Dunkin’.

Individual operators have navigated local safety regulations to offer reusable containers on a limited basis. The Just Salad fast-casual chain, for instance, offers two sizes of reusable to-go bowls for its salads.

But concerns about contamination have kept those efforts rare and far between.

Proponents encouraged Maine health officials to reconsider the provision of the state food code that prohibits refilling to-go food containers, arguing that safe reuse would drastically cut roadside and waterway litter. They cited research findings that eight out of 10 pieces of refuse fished out of the world’s oceans were food packages.

“This policy update gives Maine businesses the green light to save money and reduce their environmental impact by providing their customers with reusable and returnable take-out containers,” Chrissy Adamowicz, coordinator of sustainable Maine outreach for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in a statement. “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.”

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