Reusable takeout containers come in many shapes and sizes. Pictured here is a bowl with a handle and screw top lid. (Photo by Yana Benjamin Photography.)
Did you know that Americans generate 570 million pounds of food packaging waste every day? Neither did I until just a few years ago.
Thinking about a better model
When I enrolled in the Erb Institute’s graduate program in business and sustainability at the University of Michigan, I spent countless hours thinking about waste and trying to come up with creative ways to reduce it. I found food packaging particularly bothersome. Think of the food-grade clamshell containers that to-go salads come in. I got them all the time at restaurants, and every time I finished a salad I ended up throwing out or recycling the clamshell, only to get a brand new one the next time. I kept asking myself why I needed a new clamshell each time.
The Expanded Polystyrene clamshell often goes straight to the trash. (Photo by Renee S. Suen under a Creative Commons license from Flickr.)
Wasn’t there a better way? What if restaurants and customers had a system for reusing and sharing containers that would eliminate the need to repeatedly make and dispose of new single-use containers?
A trash bin full of containers that were used just once, and are now on their way to the landfill.
The model existed!
It turned out that a reuse model existed. Hundreds of universities across the U.S. had already started experimenting with reusable takeout container (RTC) programs that gave customers at campus dining facilities the option of getting food to go in reusable containers instead of disposable ones. Customers who chose reusable containers would return the containers to be cleaned, sanitized, and put back into circulation after eating their food.
Ladies and Gentlemen … the reusable takeout container! (Photo by Yana Benjamin Photography.)
My experience with RTCs
Itching to join the exciting RTC movement, I launched an RTC program called Go Blue Box in 2012 at the University Club Café. Thanks to a university grant and the help of many people, Go Blue Box was a huge success. Customers had the option of taking to-go food in a reusable container, and restaurant staff collected, sanitized, and recirculated used containers. Half of the U-Club’s 60 daily takeout customers were using RTCs after only one week, and after only nine months, we diverted nearly 5,000 containers from the landfill.
I enjoyed the Go Blue Box experience so much that I recently created a business called BizeeBox to offer RTCs to other types of food service establishments.
Go Blue Box gave people the option of using reusable takeout containers (on the right), rather than disposable containers (on the left). All that was required was a $5 deposit.
Starting an RTC program at your college or university
Naturally, Go Blue Box didn’t just happen overnight. Like anything worthwhile, it took time, dedication, and luck. The guide below is my attempt to explain how, as a college student, you can start a reusable takeout container program at your college or university.
Step 1: Know your school
Before getting started, take some time to understand the political, social, and organizational landscape at your school. Has the administration made a commitment to sustainability goals? Are there student groups working on sustainability-related projects that might be able to help? The point is to know what you’re getting yourself into, and to be prepared for it. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the challenges related to school bureaucracy.
Step 2: Figure out who makes decisions
Meet with anyone who will talk to you from the office in charge of campus sustainability, the cafeteria or dining hall, the operations office, and/or the procurement office. Learn who makes decisions and what they care most about.
Similarly, find out who runs the food service at your school. The restaurant we partnered with for Go Blue Box happened to be run by the school itself, but you may have to work through an external vendor like Sodexo, Aramark, or Sysco with different priorities. If that’s the case, it will be worth your time to learn about the vendor’s goals and relationship to your school.
Step 3: Select a restaurant, cafeteria, or dining hall
Be smart about who you approach, when you approach them, and how you present yourself.
Approach restaurants that are owned and operated by your university first. Regional and national chains often have long-term contracts in place, make decisions on a national level, and sometimes even operate outside of the rules and regulations of the school. Cafeterias and dining halls with salad or hot entrée bars are most conducive to RTC programs, but in general, you should keep an eye out for eateries that people often leave with takeout containers.
Visit during off-peak hours. Simply show up, and talk to whoever you can. Determine who runs the show, and set up a time to talk to him or her. Don’t be afraid to go back multiple times—you will encounter busy people who aren’t lying when they say they’re “just too busy to talk right now!”
When you finally get a meeting, go prepared. As a student, you have incredible leeway. People will want to work with you because they trust that you’re pursuing the RTC for the right reasons. Even so, you still need to know your story, understand the financial and environmental benefits of RTCs, and be ready to talk about how this concept has been successful elsewhere.
Step 4: Sort out your food code certification early on
You will need to work with your school’s occupational safety and environmental health department to assuage any concerns they might have about the safety of a reusable takeout container program.
It’s true that the federal food code (See 4-603.17: “Returnables, Cleaning for Refilling”) prohibits restaurants from serving food in a container provided by a customer. But an RTC program does not technically work that way, and the path to approval becomes much easier once you explain how RTCs work to the health authorities with appropriate jurisdiction.
Be sure to research what type of variance to the food code you need to draft, and find out what your timeline will need to be. Get approval sooner rather than later because, without the variance, your RTC project simply won’t happen.
Step 5: Create a budget and apply for money
Starting an RTC program is not free. You will need to buy equipment, including the takeout containers (we went with GET Enterprises’ Eco-Takeouts), a few return receptacles, storage crates, and exchange tokens. If your budget allows, you may also want to purchase marketing materials, such as t-shirts or reusable bags, and hire a few students who can help run the program in the beginning.
The Go Blue Box return receptacle.
As more and more people use your program, however, you will quickly see a return on your investment and eliminate the cafeteria’s need for purchasing disposable containers.
The challenge now lies in locating money for the program, which will depend on what kind of resources your school makes available. The University of Michigan had a grant specifically for sustainability-related projects, but if your school doesn’t offer something similar, you might try to convince someone in the administration to sponsor you. You can also explore the option of taking money out of the operating budget of the restaurant you’re working with.
Having well-researched and clearly-articulated financial and environmental cases will dramatically increase your chance of receiving funding.
Step 6: Get help
I can’t stress the importance of building a team enough. Designing a successful RTC program is a ton of work with a lot of moving parts, and it will be impossible for one or two people to do it on their own. For Go Blue Box, a classmate and I enlisted the help of five undergraduate students, the restaurant manager, the director of the University Unions, and two part-time student employees. Without their help and hard work, the program never would have succeeded.
Step 7: Design the program
Now comes the fun part—designing your RTC program. The most important detail is your accountability system, because you need to make sure that people return used containers. We addressed this by having each Go Blue Box customer pay a $5 deposit upfront, and then they could exchange their used container for a clean one, a program token, or a refund. Here is a list of other questions you should consider when you start planning:
- What kind of accountability system will you use? If you choose the deposit system, how much will the deposit be? What will customers receive in exchange?
- Who is going to manage and monitor the accountability system?
- How will you keep employees accountable for properly cleaning and sanitizing the containers?
- Where is theft likely to happen, and how can you prevent it?
A Go Blue Box token (pictured here) could be exchanged for a clean container at a later time.
- What types of containers should you supply to the cafeteria or restaurant?
- How many containers will you need to make available on a daily basis to satisfy your estimated demand? Where are you going to put them?
- Where are you going to place the return receptacles so that they are easy for customers to find?
- Who is going to pick up the used containers from the return receptacles?
- Who is going to clean the containers? Where will you store them when they are clean, and who is going to make sure they are stored correctly?
- What training is necessary and how will it be done?
- When will the service start?
- How will you educate customers on the benefits of the program?
- Who is going to be in charge of marketing and education?
We created an operations manual for Go Blue Box that made our system very clear to all who were involved. I highly recommend that you do something similar.
Step 8: Get the word out
When you have a restaurant, launch plan, launch date, and money, start marketing. Create flyers and posters and contact your school’s news outlets. If there’s one thing we learned from Go Blue Box it’s that people don’t understand the RTC concept right off the bat. So take time to educate fellow students, faculty, and staff, and get them excited about the environmental impact they can make by participating.
Step 9: Implement
When it’s time to implement, have some fun! Execute the plan you put in place. Get your teammates excited. Make special shirts with the program’s logo, and wear them for the first week to generate interest in the program. Interact with customers to figure out how you can iterate and make the program better. Talk to people who aren’t using the program and figure out what it would take to get them on board. Regardless of what you do, make it fun and engaging!
The Go Blue Box t-shirt we used to publicize the program.
Step 10: Track your progress
We monitored every single Go Blue Box transaction for the first four months. This allowed us to see how often people were coming back, keep track of our most frequent users, enter users into a raffle for free meals, and measure our progress. At a minimum, you should have counts in place at the beginning of each day so you can determine how many people have been using the service and whether or not you’re losing containers.
In addition, measure the environmental outcomes. Quantify the water, electricity, Greenhouse Gas emissions, etc. saved thanks to your program. We found a few students willing to help us do a Lifecycle Assessment comparing the environmental impacts of RTCs to compostable containers. This kind of information will help you in the long run, because people want to do what’s right for the environment.
Finally, don’t forget to survey your customers to find out how the service could be improved.
Step 12: Make it sustainable
True, you’re going to graduate and move on to do big things in the world, but you want your program to be in place long after you’re gone. Make sure you have a leadership succession plan in place. Get the next generation of students excited about what you’re doing, and involve them sooner rather than later. Or, if you have developed strong relationships with the school’s staff, you can ask them to take on the program instead.
You’re creating something new to promote sharing, better utilize resources, and reduce the environmental impact of food takeout. If it were easy, someone else would have done it already. Will it be worth your time and energy? Yes and yes.