Guest Author | October 30, 2013
By: Rich Grousset
Anyone who works in corporate sustainability probably knows that employee cafeterias can generate a lot of waste. And, based on hours of Google searching, it seems like a lot of companies that are aiming for “zero waste to landfill” are adopting compostable or biodegradable food service products. But there is a promising development in sustainable food service that has yet to become mainstream - reusable takeout containers (RTCs). RTCs can save companies money and reduce their environmental footprints.
What are Reusable Takeout Containers?
RTCs represent a new application of an old concept – reuse. The containers themselves come in many shapes and sizes, just like disposable food containers. The difference is that they are sturdier, perform better and can be used hundreds of times before they are recycled. Using them is similar to checking a book out of a public library: employees check out containers when they get their food, eat wherever they like and return the containers to a conveniently located collection point.
I gained firsthand experience with RTCs when I launched the University of Michigan’s first reusable takeout container program, Go Blue Box, in 2012. During this experience, it occurred to me that university cafeterias are very similar to employee cafeterias anywhere. But, while several hundred universities across the country are adopting RTCs, I’ve only found anecdotal evidence of companies doing the same.
This doesn’t mean some companies aren’t embracing reuse. For example, Sustainable Brands reported in 2011 that some of Honda’s North American plants were transitioning to washable dishware. And I’m sure there are more examples out there like Honda. At the same time, I suspect that many sustainability directors or food managers are not aware of the RTC option or do not have the time or resources to make the case for it.
To help make the case for RTCs, I relied on the practical training I received as EDF Climate Corps fellow working to identify and advance commercial energy efficiency initiatives.
The Environmental Case
All takeout containers require materials, energy and water to manufacture and are usually transported a long distance. National recycling and composting rates are still shockingly low, and even the processes of recycling and composting result in lost materials and energy. Biodegradable containers were thought to be an even better option, but some research suggests that they can do more harm than good by releasing methane in landfills.
Reusing a takeout container more than once will improve its environmental footprint as long as doing so does not create more greenhouse gases through more energy and water usage. Publicly available lifecycle comparisons of these options to RTCs are scarce or nonexistent, but evidence from several student analyses supports this assertion and suggests that reusable containers likely come out ahead of all other options after fewer than 100 uses. The containers I worked with are rated for more than 350 uses, so it seems like a no brainer.
The Business Case
The primary goal of the University of Michigan RTC pilot was to capture and analyze all of the costs and benefits associated with this type of program. The results revealed that, in just one small cafeteria serving fewer than 60 takeout meals per day, RTCs were saving the University approximately $10 per day.
Now let’s take a look at a real life example on a slightly larger scale: Ball Corporation, which used to buy 50,000 foam takeout containers every year but now instead buys only 1,000 RTCs every other year. The company saves about $800 per month, two hours per day in labor due to reduced trash management and requires one less dumpster every other week. In addition, if Ball Corporation were paying $0.20 per container, then disposables would’ve been costing it $10,000 per year. That alone is nearly enough to justify purchasing a commercial dishwasher!
Is It Really that Simple?
Not necessarily, but I believe it is simple enough that RTCs will eventually become ubiquitous. In fact, I co-founded a company, BizeeBox, with a mission to provide companies and individuals an easy and engaging RTC experience that makes sense financially and environmentally.
To help the EDF Climate Corps network get started on building a case for reusable takeout containers programs within their organization or community, below I’ve provided five key elements to building a successful program:
- Accountability: Who owns the program? How do you incentivize employees to return containers?
- Education: What training and education is required for facilities and food service staff? What about for employees eating at the cafeteria?
- Engagement: How can you use an RTC program as a channel through which to engage with employees and the community?
- Operations: How exactly would such a program work at your company? What are your company’s current operational capabilities and what additional resources are needed?
- Container Selection: Which containers are right for your organization?
About Rich Grousset
Rich Grousset received his MBA and MS in Natural Resources & Environment from the University of Michigan in April of 2013. During graduate school, Rich worked as an EDF Climate Corps fellow at Firmenich, Inc. in 2011 and at RBS Citizens Financial Group in 2012. After graduation, he co-founded BizeeBox, a reusable takeout container service with the goal of empowering people and organizations to reduce food packaging waste. BizeeBox is currently raising seed money via a crowdfunding campaign on Indieogogo.com that ends on October 31.
About EDF Climate Corps
EDF Climate Corps (edfclimatecorps.org) taps the talents of tomorrow’s leaders to save energy, money and the environment by placing specially-trained EDF fellows in companies, cities and universities as dedicated energy problem solvers. Working with hundreds of leading organizations, EDF Climate Corps has uncovered nearly $1.3 billion in energy savings. For more information, visit edfclimatecorps.org. Read our blog at edfclimatecorps.org/blog. Follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/edfbiz and on Facebook at facebook.com/EDFClimateCorps.