With the stay-at-home orders in place in some states and severe restrictions on indoor dining in others, it’s no surprise that the delivery and take-out industry is booming. For many restaurants, this is their primary (if not only) source of income at the moment. As people order more take-out than ever, some environmentally-minded citizens feel very conscious of their carbon footprint by supporting local businesses. This increase in packaging has led to many Instagram users posting photos of a mountain of styrofoam and employing the sarcastic, self-aware hashtag “#sorryenvironment.”
The concern for being green has forced many restaurant industry leaders to consider a more long-term answer to those pesky styrofoam containers that some experts estimate take 500 years to biodegrade. This concern has led some restaurant owners and app developers to wonder: what if there could be a standardized version of a take-out container that could be sanitized and reused?
App-Based Reusable Take-out Companies
In San Francisco, a start-up called Dispatch is exploring this green endeavor. Twelve local restaurants have employed the app, which customers use to place their order, just as they would on GrubHub or UberEats. Customers pay a $1.99 added charge for each menu item, which comes in a stainless steel container, sometimes called a tiffin. These can be returned to participating restaurants and sanitized. So far, this program has seen decent success—Dispatch orders currently account for 10% of all orders to these restaurants.
A New York start-up called DeliverZero is exploring a similar model. The main difference is that customers do not pay an up-front fee for the containers, and they then have six weeks to return the containers to a participating restaurant. (If they fail to return the dishwasher-safe containers, they are charged $3.25 per item.) DeliverZero is hoping to expand to other major US cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles.
Some restaurants and chains have opted to remove the middleman and start their own reusable take-out service.
International chain JustSalad offers a reusable bowl program for its customers. The incentive? Free extra toppings. The company has a mission to strive to create zero waste by 2022.
CurryMobile in Ottawa has a program where they deliver their meals in tiffins to customers who opt for them. The customers then return the vessels to the restaurant. The owner of CurryMobile reports that most of their customers are groups like offices that order at least once a month. This service provides a hidden benefit of restaurants offering their own reusable take-out service: built-in repeat customers.
For restaurants looking to take on reusable take-out, proper use and sanitation of these containers will be essential. This could potentially become an added module to a restaurant training program for staff onboarding or continued learning.
Other Ways to Reduce Waste
If a restaurant is looking for ways to go greener but is not ready to change its entire operation, small changes can be made to its take-out packaging that can make a big difference.
Restaurants with online ordering can make it an option for guests to indicate whether they’d like extra napkins, condiments, straws, and utensils rather than giving these extras automatically.
Another effort towards sustainability includes a switch to recyclable/compostable take-out containers. Restaurant should look for options that do not contain certain chemicals like fluorine, which can cause harm to the environment and the consumer reheating the food.
When it comes to saving the environment, small efforts can make a big difference. With many customers looking to live a greener lifestyle, restaurants with a transparently sustainable options will be more likely to receive support from their community.