Reusable Takeout Containers Aim to Take Out Trash

by Jodi Helmer


Before the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread restaurant closures, the food cart pods in downtown Portland were one of the most popular spots for lunch. Once hungry workers finished their tacos, veggie burgers and banh mi, trash cans overflowed with takeout containers. In the US, we toss an estimated 80.1 million tons of containers and packaging each year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

“People are willing to pay for a service that helps,” says Jocelyn Gaudi Quarrell, owner and CEO of GoBox.

Go Box started offering reusable takeout containers at food carts in 2015. The program has expanded to include 110 restaurants and food vendors across Portland. 

Consumers purchase monthly subscriptions, which start at $3.95 per month and show a QR code to participating food vendors to have their to-go orders packed in reusable containers. The used containers are deposited in drop boxes at restaurants and participating partners such as bike shops and banks; Go Box washes and sterilizes the reusable container before restocking with vendors. In February, the startup washed 2,586 containers, diverting single-use plastics from the waste stream.

“We want to make it easier for people to choose reusable,” Quarrell. “When you make it easy, it quickly becomes ubiquitous.”Reusable takeout containers might not be ubiquitous — yet — but a growing number of programs are working to make them more prevalent despite the challenges of the current pandemic.

The Future of Takeout

When Wisebox launched a reusable takeout container pilot program in Toronto in February, co-founder Beth Szurpicki worried there might not be enough interest to make it successful. In the first two weeks, 15 restaurants signed on to participate — and 25 more later called to ask about joining — and 50 reusable takeout containers have been checked out, proving to Szurpicki that consumers are hungry for change.

The program, which charges a $5 refundable deposit for each container, was targeting 100 restaurants by the end of the year (and 200 more by the end of 2021). Wisebox initially set an aspirational goal of saving 1 million takeout containers [from the waste stream]. 

“We think that if a small percentage of Torontonians use Wisebox instead of disposable containers, we can hit one million disposable containers saved in one year,”  Szurpicki says.

In San Francisco, Dispatch Goods partnered with Yelp to pilot their reusable container program in October 2019. The containers are available at three local restaurants and a food truck that are popular staff lunch spots. During the first month of the pilot, an estimated 4,780 single-use plastic takeout boxes were diverted from the landfill. Co-founder and CEO Lindsey Hoell believes that each corporate partnership could save up to 10,000 takeout containers per year.

Material Considerations

Transitioning away from single-use plastics doesn’t mean eliminating plastic altogether. 

Go Box uses containers made from BPA-free polypropylene #5. Quarrell acknowledges the containers are made in China from virgin plastics but their internal lifecycle analysis shows that it takes 30 uses to counteract the environmental impact of production and transportation; each container can be used an estimated 1,000 times before it needs to be replaced.

Wisebox also uses plastic containers for its new program. The team researched options ranging from bamboo to bioplastics and, based on criteria like lifecycle, durability and heat transfer, polypropylene was the best option. 

“The fact that we’re using a plastic container is a concern for some people…and we recognize the irony,” Szurpicki says. “We’re hopeful to improve on the product but that’s what works best for now.”

Dispatch Goods opted for stainless steel containers with silicone lids. The containers, Hoell admits, were not designed for restaurant use and she is working with the California-based manufacturer to make tweaks that will allow the containers to stack inside each other to save space in restaurants. The extra effort, she believes, is worth it, adding, “We want to eliminate plastic from our entire supply chain.”

Coronavirus Concerns

The coronavirus pandemic has made it harder for companies like Dispatch Goods to meet their goals. Hoell was set to expand the reusable takeout container program to three additional companies in downtown San Francisco when the virus hit, closing restaurants and forcing staff to work from home. 

“Waste is going way up [because more people are ordering takeout],” Hoell says. “It’s horrifying for those of us who have been fighting against it.”

In Portland, most of the food partners that worked with GoBox are closed due to the pandemic, leading to significant decreases in the use of reusable takeout containers. Although the reusables are not integrated into third-party delivery apps, Quarrell notes that the stay-at-home orders would make it difficult for users to return their containers to public drop sites.

Fears that reusable bags could spread coronavirus sent consumers racing back to plastic. Research that showed COVID-19 could be stable on plastic led several states, including Maine, New Hampshire and New York to roll back or postpone their plastic bag bans. 

“There’s a strong confidence in the need for our services post-pandemic, particularly as we are aware of the plastic industry’s current efforts to inaccurately lobby single-use products as more sanitary than reusables,” Quarrell adds. 

Waste is going way up [because more people are ordering takeout]. It’s horrifying for those of us who have been fighting against it.

Lindsey Hoell

Co-Founder & CEO, Dispatch Goods

Reaching Beyond Restaurants

The programs are still new — and the coronavirus has halted efforts to integrate reusable containers into restaurant operations — but founders are already looking for ways to expand their reach. 

Recognizing that an estimated 44 million Americans use food delivery apps like UberEats, DoorDash and Postmates — a number that is expected to climb to 60 million by 2023—Dispatch Goods in the process of negotiating a partnership with a (still confidential) food delivery service to make reusable containers available for takeout deliveries. Wisebox is also hoping to expand its program to include online ordering. 

DeliverZero, a small food delivery service in Brooklyn, New York, uses reusable containers. Also in New York, the restaurant Dig launched Canteen by Dig to provide reusable to-go boxes in exchange for a $3 monthly fee.

“There are so many industries that use takeout containers that are not in the restaurant space,” says Wisebox co-founder Agata Rudd. “[We are wondering] can we disrupt that industry?”

Eco-Takeouts provides reusable takeout containers to cafeterias in companies, hospitals and universities. Ohio University, Stony Brook University and Vanderbilt University are among the schools providing reusable to-go containers in their cafeterias. 

In Portland, Go Box has expanded into 13 locations including local grocer New Seasons Markets and Quarrell is exploring licensing agreements to bring Go Box to other cities. Quarrell acknowledges that the future is uncertain: It could be months before workers return to their offices (and regular habits of grabbing takeout for lunch); many of the restaurants shuttered during the pandemic might not reopen; and high unemployment rates could mean less willingness to spend money on a reusable takeout container subscription. 

Still, she says, “People all over the world are looking for a local solution to single-use plastics [and] we’re brainstorming how we can evolve our service to better support the local food and beverage community when they are able to reopen. We see an opportunity to build resiliency for our community by strengthening the local circular economy.” 

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