Restaurants Create a Mound of Plastic Waste. Some Are Working to Fix That. | How Can Restaurants Rein in Plastic Waste?

Restaurants Create a Mound of Plastic Waste. Some Are Working to Fix That.

A small but growing number of restaurants are moving away from single-use plastic take-out containers, which usually end up in the trash because they can’t be recycled. 

David Martinez, manager at Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton, Massachusetts, handing over a meal in reusable container. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)

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At Johnny’s Luncheonette, a family-style diner in the greater Boston area serving sandwiches and breakfast all day, customers can take their meal to go in a lime-green, durable plastic container that is borrowed like a library book and designed to be reused hundreds, if not thousands, of times by other restaurant patrons.

Customers don’t pay extra for the reusable take-out box. They simply need to download an app called Recirclable, and—to avoid paying a $15 fee—return the container within two weeks to one of 14 restaurants participating in Recirclable’s reuse program.

“Reuse is just smart. It’s smart resource-wise. It’s smart cost-wise.”

Johnny’s Luncheonette is among a small but growing number of restaurants taking steps to move away from single-use plastic take-out containers, which usually end up in the trash because they can’t be recycled. Worse yet, mismanaged plastic waste eventually enters the oceans, where it kills sea creatures that ingest it and breaks apart into toxic microplastics the size of a lentil or smaller.

Restaurants and food services use nearly 1 trillion pieces of disposable food service ware and packaging annually in the U.S., according to Upstream, a reuse advocacy organization.

Johnny’s Luncheonette began offering the reusable take-out containers earlier this year because its owner, Kay Masterson, was tired of the Sisyphean search for an environmentally friendly disposable take-out box. “Ideas like Recirclable are a much better option because it takes out the conversation of, ‘Well, which takeout container is less bad?’” she said. “Reuse is just smart. It’s smart resource-wise. It’s smart cost-wise.”

Masterson pays more per piece for the reusable packaging but said that she expects costs will drop below disposable packaging as more customers use the service. Thus far, only dozens of customers have selected the reusable option.

In the kitchen at Johnny’s Luncheonette with a meal to go in a reusable container. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)

Many case studies show that while reusable containers cost more upfront, businesses start to save fairly quickly. What’s more, “It’s not just about saving money but about building resiliency so that you have shorter supply chains without so much global dependency,” said Elizabeth Balkan, director of Reloop America, at Reloop, a nonprofit operating in both Europe and the U.S.

Moving from single use to reuse is one of the biggest opportunities for reducing plastic pollution, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a reuse pioneer. Reuse services targeting food businesses are growing quickly in the U.S., especially for arenas and stadiums, colleges and K-12 schools, corporate offices, and other institutions.

Startups offering logistics and dishwashing are proliferating, as are nonprofit organizations providing strategic support, funding, and advocacy. But reuse is still far from the norm in the U.S. Communities need shared reuse infrastructure for the practice to pick up steam, according to Crystal Dreisbach, CEO of Upstream. Cohesive, city-scale systems could help shift consumer habits and increase the volume of materials being reused, which is essential for both economic and environmental impact. Enabling policies would hasten the transition.

“You can’t have consumers running all over town, dropping off things in [different] places. You’re going to need big infrastructure that will accommodate this massive systemic change away from disposable to reusable,” Dreisbach said.

Reuse on the Rise

Reuse services are emerging in cities across the country, from the Bay Area to Brooklyn. Startups like Vessel and Turn Systems offer customers a reusable cup option at the point of sale that can be returned at kiosks or bins. DeliverZero provides reusable take-out containers at some 150 restaurants in New York City, Boulder, Colorado, and California, and at Whole Foods stores in Boulder. Usefull offers stainless steel containers on college campuses. Bold Reuse services large venues in Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Kansas City, and Phoenix, while Dispatch Goods in San Francisco and ReUso in Chicago serve restaurants and institutions.

Dishwashing and sanitizing systems are also emerging, since they’re key to any reuse system. Restaurants handle their own dishwashing in Recirclable’s system. Other reuse companies provide dishwashing, including via mobile units at large venues, or contract it out to large washing stations like Re:Dish, which operates in New York City and Philadelphia and is equipped with technologies for tracking and sorting packaging.

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ReThink Disposable provides free reuse consulting to restaurants, institutions, and large venues in Minnesota, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. The nonprofit also raises funding to buy reusable packaging and/or install dishwashers at restaurants and food delivery programs run by nonprofits, such as Truro Community Kitchen.

Reusable containers come in ceramic, glass, stainless steel, and plastic, depending on the venue, but, for takeout, “most restaurant owners prefer durable, No. 5 plastic [polypropylene type] because they store and stack easily,” are lightweight, and can be microwaved, said Amber Schmidt, New England zero-waste specialist at ReThink Disposable.

While “reusable plastic may be an imperfect solution, it is still a critically important step in the right direction,” toward an overall reduction in plastic packaging, Balkan said.

Volume Is Key

Recirclable was co-founded in 2021 by Margie Bell, who worked for decades on ecommerce and point-of-sale applications in the software industry. “Our vision was, ‘Let’s have this happening at every restaurant and, like library books, you borrow at one and you return to another.’” 

Recirclable’s volume is small. Its users are dedicated customers who follow it from restaurant to restaurant, Bell told Civil Eats. “We’re in the thousands—and we’d love to be in the tens and hundreds of thousands—but we have to grow the network” of restaurants.

(Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)

“The biggest hurdle with Recirclable is just getting the word out there and changing habits,” said Masterson.

Recirclable’s small network of restaurants also limits its growth. Customers must live near a restaurant where they can return the container, or the system doesn’t work for them. The number of steps required is another barrier. Johnny’s Luncheonette Manager David Martinez said that when some interested people learn they have to download an app and put in their credit card, they decline.

“We recognize that can cause friction,” said Bell, who won an award from the EPA to develop a new system, launching this year, that will be accessed with one tap of a credit card.

Recirclable is not alone in having difficulty reaching volume—“the cornerstone” of reuse, Dreisbach said. “You cannot make the system work, you cannot make the economics work, until you have volume.”

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Re:Dish’s washing station in Brooklyn, for example, can handle 75,000 reusables daily, but “we’re not anywhere near there right now,” CEO and founder Caroline Vanderlip told Civil Eats. Re:Dish is on track to handle 4.5 million containers this year, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the trillion pieces of packaging used in the food sector, she said.

Transformational Change

To scale up reuse, Dreisbach envisions municipal waste and recycling centers becoming reuse centers. Reuse represents “a really cool new revenue stream” for recycling facilities, which struggle with volatility in recovered materials markets, she said.

Private investment, government funding—including from the Inflation Reduction Act—and forward service contracts with large anchor clients such as arenas could support such infrastructure development. The nonprofit Perpetual, in fact, is now working to design and implement city-scale reusable food service ware solutions in collaboration with Ann Arbor, Michigan; Hilo, Hawaii; Galveston, Texas; and Savannah, Georgia.

Laws mandating reuse would hasten the transition, as they have in Europe, where reuse is more widespread, Balkan told Civil Eats. Oregon, California, and Maine have passed laws moving in this direction that will raise funds for reuse, she said.

But big consumer brands also need to lead the way on shaping consumer attitudes about reuse, said Driesbach. “They have a great deal of power to decide what that packaging is,” she said, adding that consumers are ready for reuse. “COVID really showed us what appeared in our trash cans at home because we were all getting takeout. Awareness about trash has increased hugely in the last five years.”

Meg Wilcox is a freelance writer based in Boston focused on solutions-oriented stories about the ways people are fighting climate change, protecting the environment and making our agriculture systems more sustainable, including by addressing poverty. Read more >

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  1. byutaber
    Reusable takeout food containers have been used now for over a decade at our university. Some unique challenges have come up over the duration of the program that wouldn't be apparent shortly following an industry trend up-tick. For one, although the theoretical reuse capacity of plastic reusable containers, which are by far the most common, is potentially hundreds of uses, the reality can be much different. Wear and tear from metal utensils grooves the inside surfaces and can create food safety hazards, especially when containers sit unwashed for lengthy periods of time so mold and bacteria grow extensively inside the highly textured surfaces and don't wash out – this can also be a health for individuals with highly sensitive food allergies. Also, exposure to high-heat dishwashers and some cleaning chemicals discolors, warps, and makes brittle the plastic containers, shortening their lifespan - not to mention the containers become brittle and prone to breakage after even just two to three dozen uses with proper care. Any containers with so-called "living" or dynamic hinges are also very problematic because they wear out somewhat quickly and are irreparable when they snap. When customers are visiting from far away and have no intention or ability to return containers this becomes problematic and inequitable if they have to pay a premium for a reusable container with no other options. The logistics for service providers of inventorying both reusable and disposable takeout containers can sometimes be a black-or-white decision when storage space is limited. Additionally, the continuously mounting research on health impacts of environmental plastic exposure is concerning, and while disposable plastics and styrofoam are demonstrated to be much worse, all plastic exposure is worse than paper products or reusable steel, ceramic, or glassware. Lastly, because of the realities of the lifespan and actual usage rates of many reusable container programs, LCAs that assign relative values for the carbon and environmental footprints of various types of containers may vastly overestimate the lifespan of some containers such as plastic, glass, and ceramic. For instance, while a plastic reusable container can theoretically be used hundreds of times, realistically it may only be used two to three dozen times, but unfortunately its carbon footprint (let alone any other environmental parameters) requires it to be reused 60 times or more before it is offset. Major food(s) for thought.
  2. Andyman
    I wish this article addressed non-plastic take-out containers, like the classic folded white paper box often used in Chinese food takeout.

    On a related note to restaurant take-out, my family would really like to use those meal delivery services that mail ingredients or fully prepared meals to your house so you don't have to cook every night...but we don't use the services because we feel guilty about the amount of plastic and other non-recyclable trash that they come with.

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