Thanks to the pandemic, we're eating a lot more takeout from restaurants. But the meal may come with a side order of guilt if you contemplate the pile of disposable containers needed to serve it.
Even if the containers are compostable or recyclable, single-use containers still seem like a waste.
Three young Minneapolis entrepreneurs think they have a solution.
They've launched a "clean tech startup" company called Forever Ware (foreverware.org) that's designed to supply local restaurants, food trucks, grocery stores and farmers markets with reusable, stainless steel, take-home containers.
Diners borrow the containers to bring home their meals and return them to any restaurant in the network, where they're cleaned and used again. The idea is similar to old-style reuse containers (think refillable glass milk bottles or the metal lunchboxes used to deliver meals in some Asian countries). Except the shiny metal containers distributed by Forever Ware will have tracking technology.
"It's kind of like bike-sharing, but for takeout containers," said company co-founder and CEO Natasha Gaffer.
Gaffer and co-founders Nolan Singroy and Nick Krumholz, all software engineers, launched a pilot project last year.. Now, four Minneapolis businesses are offering Forever Ware's steel takeout containers: Namaste Cafe, Butter Bakery Cafe, Wise Acre Eatery and Roots for the Soul, a personal chef service.
Customers pay a $5 deposit for each metal container, which is refunded when the container is returned. (The company plans to eliminate the deposit, but will charge a non-return fee.) Forever Ware also charges the restaurants a fee for using the containers, which is comparable to the amount a restaurant would spend on disposable containers, Gaffer said.
In January and February, the reusable containers were used about 1,400 times, potentially saving that many containers from landfills.
Jimmy Red Layer, general manager of Wise Acre Eatery in Minneapolis, said the program "really spoke to us. It feels like the right thing to do."
So far, customers seem to agree. In the few months the restaurant has been offering reusable containers, Layer estimates that about 20 to 25 % of customers have opted for them instead of compostables.
"The guests love it. It's really easy. The containers are great," Layer said.
Butter Bakery Cafe uses biodegradable containers and composts on-site. Even so, the shift to takeout food during the pandemic has meant a big increase in the amount of disposable packaging that goes out the door, said owner Daniel Swenson-Klatt.
"I've been waiting for something like this," said Swenson-Klatt, who hopes reusable packaging becomes the norm for takeout food.
Environmental concerns also motivated Minneapolis resident Andrea Coronado to try the reusable containers when she ordered food and beverages from Butter.
"I love it," she said. "I wish more places would do it. I like that I'm generating less waste."
Helen Pang, owner of the Roots for Soul personal chef service, has been using the containers because they're lighter than glass, easier to clean and more durable than reusable plastic containers. Plus, "it's nicer looking in your fridge," she said.
Swenson-Klatt agreed. "The product looks and feels better in that container than in a paper box," he said. "If I'm getting something in a paper box, even if you make it pretty, it's still in a paper box."
Gaffer said the returnable containers may also foster customer loyalty to a restaurant.
"The restaurants have been telling us that once a customer tries the service, they do not switch back," she said.
Right time, right place
In fact, a reusable takeout container system was tried once before in the Twin Cities.
In 2012, a transportation planner from St. Paul named John Bailey started a company called No Thro, which planned to supply restaurants in Minneapolis with reusable plastic containers. He never got the program off the ground, in part because foam containers were so inexpensive that going to reusables would have cost more for restaurants.
While environmentalists maintain that reusing or reducing packaging is better for the planet than recycling or composting, Bailey said wanting to go green is not enough to get the average consumer to opt for reusables.
"It's just got to be super convenient for people who don't think about reusables and climate change," he said.
Gaffer, however, thinks the time is right for a reusable takeout container program in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis has an ordinance requiring restaurants to use reusable, recyclable or compostable takeout containers. St. Paul and St. Louis Park have approved similar regulations.
Gaffer points to the existence of the packaging-free, zero-waste Tare Market in Minneapolis and reusable to-go containers being used at University of Minnesota dining facilities as examples of changing consumer attitudes. "We're at a tipping point right now," she said. "We're hoping for a change in the culture."
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775