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Tiffin’s reusable takeout container program is Philly’s first. Here’s how it works.

Containers and packaging make up nearly a quarter of material in U.S. landfills. One Philly restaurant is trying to change that.

At Tiffin, you can now order dishes like chicken tandoori and cauliflower bezule, pictured here, in plastic takeout containers that can be returned, washed, and reused.
At Tiffin, you can now order dishes like chicken tandoori and cauliflower bezule, pictured here, in plastic takeout containers that can be returned, washed, and reused.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Through the pandemic, many of us have upped our takeout consumption, a godsend for coping with a beyond-stressful year, while helping support our favorite restaurants. Yet, to-go food has its downfalls — one being: the trash.

It can take just one order to learn how quickly takeout can overflow a trash can. And many of those plastic and Styrofoam containers aren’t destined for the recycling bin. (Containers and packaging make up nearly a quarter of material in U.S. landfills and account for the majority of litter that ends up on beaches and in waterways, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.) Most restaurants have considered the issue. But there are plenty of challenges to turning to eco-friendly alternatives. Cost is a primary factor, but some options, like compostable packaging, simply don’t hold up well when carrying hot foods.

Recently, however, one area restaurant decided it was time to make a change. Seeking to reduce its plastic footprint, Indian restaurant Tiffin is now offering takeout containers meant to be returned. The free containers are specifically designed to be sanitized and reused up to 1,000 times. It’s the first such program in the area. (Just Salad also offers a reusable bowl. However, customers must purchase the bowl and show up to the restaurant with their bowl each time they order. Learn how the program works here.)

» READ MORE: Want to actually remember your reusable shopping bags? Here are 8 tricks that work

From any of Tiffin’s nine locations, you can now order dishes like tikka masala, vegetable kofta, and samosas, all in the reusable packaging. The program, coined “Return2Tiffin,” was years in the making.

“In India, one of the meanings of ‘tiffin’ is a stainless steel carrier that people take their lunch in, so initially we looked into something like that, but the cost was prohibitive,” says owner Munish Narula, noting that it was his patrons who drove him to keep searching. “It wasn’t just us that wanted to reduce plastic usage — we’ve been hearing over and over again from our customers, and so when I came across containers that I thought would actually work, it was an immediate ‘let’s do this’ moment, a no-brainer.”

The program began in late March, and Narula says customers immediately started using it. There are now about 8,000 containers in circulation, and more containers are being ordered.

“The demand was so much higher than what we anticipated, and our entire team is just ecstatic about it,” says Narula. “I think it makes everyone feel like they’re doing their little bit, somehow, some way.”

Here’s how the program works.

How it works

You must order online to get your food in Tiffin’s reusable packaging. (Options to participate when ordering by phone and at the restaurant are in the works.) When you check out, you will choose between the standard disposable containers or reusable ones on the “Delivery Options” page.

The rules

Reusable containers must be returned to Tiffin within 28 days. You can wait until your next delivery and send your containers with the driver, or drop them off yourself at the location where you ordered.

First, you’ll need to give the containers a rinse (they don’t need to be pristine). Don’t put them in the dishwasher, which can erase the containers’ QR codes needed to check them back in.

The containers arrive in a Tiffin tote bag, which you’re advised to use to return them. The bags are reusable, too.

» READ MORE: How to recycle better: The five mistakes Philadelphians make most, and how to fix them

How are the containers cleaned?

After containers are returned, they’re dropped into a sanitizer solution, then cleaned in health-department-approved dishwashers, set to air dry, and stored for later use. It’s the same process used for the dishes, glasses, and silverware used when dining at the restaurant.

What happens if I don’t return the containers?

If you miss the four-week deadline, you’ll be charged $3.50 per container. Think of it like a library book, says Narula. You’ll also be charged if the containers are damaged or missing pieces. Check your email for reminders.

What are the containers made from? And can I keep them?

Although Tiffin is not ditching plastic, its jade green containers are designed to last up to 1,000 uses. They’re sourced from a company in Texas, made from BPA-free, thick-cut plastic that can carry piping hot curries and dal without leaking any sauce.

You’re welcome to keep the containers ($3.50 per container). If you do, they’re dishwasher safe and recyclable.

But it’s helpful to return them. “They cost us about $3.50 each. It’s not that ridiculously expensive, and it could actually end up saving us money,” says Narula. “Once you use the container 18 times, it pays for itself.”

Will other restaurants join this program?

Narula says future plans include creating drop box locations, such as outside stores like 711, where customers can conveniently return their containers. He also hopes to aid other restaurants in setting up similar container programs.

“That’s still in the early phases of discussion, but there are plenty of opportunities here for every restaurant, and we’re looking at ideas as to how we can help others,” says Narula.

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