Some places like farmers markets, butchers, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Zanotto's, and Starbucks understand the value of reusable containers (saves both them and you money, reduces waste, helps environment) but others do not yet. If we all keep pushing, this will become increasingly accepted.
While cardboard ice cream containers are compostable in some municipal composting programs (but not in home composting), composting them is still more waste than using a reusable container. Plus the cardboard ice cream containers do have some plastic in them.
I am currently waiting for responses from Baskin Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery to see if they will allow me to bring my own quart containers to their stores to get fresh packed ice cream. Cold Stone also makes its ice cream at their stores. I've had some shops say I could bring my own container while another said I couldn't. This ice cream is a about the same cost as Ben & Jerry ice cream and similar quality.
While I try to avoid plastic as much as possible, reusable polypropylene (#5 plastic) containers are my current favorites for shopping since they are inexpensive, light, nest compactly, do not break easily, can be frozen, recycle reasonably well when they do wear out, and are dishwasher safe. Glass is more recyclable but it is voluminous, heavy and breaks too easily. Stainless steel containers are very expensive and hard to find in the right sizes.
I do avoid microwaving in plastic because it can melt and it increases the risk of chemicals moving from the plastic into my food.
My current favorite reusable plastic containers are:
Glad Entree 3-1/8 cups containers -- They are square, compact, readily available at grocery stores, inexpensive, a great size for a sandwich or an individual portion for lunch or dinner or restaurant left overs. They also have a reasonably good seal. At Safeway they are listed as "disposable" but I've gotten about as many years of use from these as I have heavier plastic polypropylene containers.
Glad Containers Family Size Square 13 cups -- These are a larger version of the above and great for bulk foods (cereals, etc) as well as larger portions. They fit 3 pints of strawberries well when I visit the farmer's market.
Reditainer Extreme Freeze Deli Food Containers with Lids, 32-Ounce -- a standard round quart size that seals and freezes well. I hope to use these when getting ice cream in the future.
5/9/2016 Update #1: I found out that both Basking Robbins and Cold Stone Creamery allowed me to bring my own container.
5/9/2016 Update #2: California Food Code (a derivative of the US Food Code) explicitly allows consumers to bring their own containers to be refilled! Yay!
CALIFORNIA RETAIL FOOD CODE
Excerpt from CALIFORNIA HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE
PART 7. CALIFORNIA RETAIL FOOD CODE
Effective January 1, 2016
CHAPTER 5. Cleaning and Sanitizing of Equipment and Utensils
(a) Except as specified in subdivisions (b) and (c), returned empty containers intended for refilling with food or beverage shall be cleaned and refilled in an approved facility.
(b) Consumer-owned containers returned to the food facility for refilling may be refilled and returned to the same consumer if the container is refilled by an employee of the food facility or the owner of the container if the dispensing system includes a contamination free transfer process that cannot be bypassed by the container owner.
(c) Consumer-owned containers that are not food specific may be filled at a water vending machine or system.
Waste reduction summary:
- Matter (material):
- Big win. The reusables last a long time before needing to be recycled.
- Big win. No more disposables to manufacture, transport to me, and transport to dump/recycling. Washing uses a bit of energy but is sustainable.
- Neutral once you change your habits. Just need to be prepared and have your reusables on hand.
- Big win. No more disposable plastics clogging landfills or filling recycling/trash trucks. We already had space in our house for reusable containers.
- Overall seems to net out. Some things cost more some less.
- HUGE win. Greatly reduces plastic use/waste.