Vegan sushi is on the menu, and it comes in a reusable tin container. Or at least that’s the case for Salvage Hausu in Oakland, California, which offers a spicy tuna roll with watermelon "tuna," sambal, cucumber and house-made sunflower "cream cheese"; king "scallops" made with daikon, tangerine miso butter, pickled ramps, fennel pollen and scallion tops; and cucumber maki, among other meatless items.
In June, the restaurant changed the entirety of its packaging to reusable tin containers, thanks to a partnership with Dispatch Goods, a reverse logistics startup based in San Francisco. Whether a Salvage Hausu customer is ordering dine-in or take-out, their food is placed in a tin container.
Single-use containers bring convenience, cost savings for businesses and — in the age of COVID-19 — assumed health benefits. See the plastic industry’s messaging around health risks. Since the start of the pandemic, consumption of single-use plastics has increased by 250 to 300 percent, according to a recent report about the reuse economy from Upstream, a public-interest nonprofit organization focused on helping businesses and communities shift from single-use to reuse.
But often the plastic packaging used for food is a source of waste and environmental impacts due to its low recyclability. While disposable plastic takeout containers might have a chasing arrow symbol on them, they often make their way to landfill anyway. Containers and packaging — including food-related containers and packaging — contribute over 23 percent of the material reaching landfills in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"Reusables beat single-use for any environmental measure, whether it's water impacts or energy or greenhouse gas or resource extraction or biodiversity," said Miriam Gordon, policy director at Upstream and author of the report.
For Alexandria Smith, owner of the vegan Japanese eatery, making the switch to all reusable containers (as opposed to using them only when customers opt in) wasn’t initially a no-brainer. Smith started the business as a pop-up just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so things were just getting off the ground when eating establishments of all types faced shut down.
As a small business owner, with no investors, Smith worried that using reusable containers, which represent an added cost for Salvage Hausu, would "completely kill our business." Salvage Hausu pays the service fee that some other Dispatch Goods restaurant partners pass on to their customers. For customers who are Dispatch Goods program members, that cost is $20 per month, and for non-members, those fees range from $1.99 per item to $4.99 per order.
After much thinking and a conversation with a friend, Smith decided: "If people don't want to join me and Salvage Hausu on this journey to go reusable, then they can order from somewhere else and be really disappointed that they're not getting my food." Since making the change, Smith has not looked back.
"It's really incredible how many boxes we've saved from going to the landfill," Smith said, noting that in June alone, the restaurant avoided using over 2,000 disposable to-go boxes.
Salvage Hausu is one of more than 30 San Francisco Bay Area restaurants that Dispatch Goods has partnered with since its founding in 2019.
When a restaurant engages the startup, both parties decide the extent of participation: whether the restaurant will use reusable containers for all of just a portion of its items, the latter strategy making it possible for the customer to opt in to use the reusable tin for their meal. Once that is settled and the restaurant is onboarded, Dispatch Goods arranges pick-up and drop-off days for the containers, which it takes to its warehouse in the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco. That’s also where its sorting, repacking, cleaning and distribution happens. According to the company site, it follows the California Department of Health's Retail Food Code guidelines and additional steps to ensure its containers are clean for the next use.
Dispatch Goods also picks up containers, which can be used hundreds of times, from individuals’ home or work addresses. During the checkout process, customers are autoscheduled for the collection day in their neighborhood. Dispatch Goods groups collections by neighborhood to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with its logistics activities. If a person is not a Dispatch Goods member, they can text the number that is on the container’s label to arrange a pickup. Lastly, customers can also drop off bags and containers at one of the startup’s return bins, many of which are at partner restaurants across the Bay Area.
"Our mission is to eliminate single use and [create] a circular system to enable both customers and restaurants to participate and make it easy and delightful for them," said Maia Tekle, COO and cofounder of Dispatch Goods.
More regional players
Salvage Hausu is among the vanguard of eateries across the U.S. that are trying new approaches to reusable containers. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, restaurants partnered with the city’s Office of Sustainability and Innovations to run a pilot program for reusable containers. It started in early June and ended July 31. According to the website for the program, the office is assessing public feedback and the results of the pilot program to determine next steps.
Further east, the fast casual restaurant Just Salad’s reusable bowl program, in which customers purchase a bowl for $1 and receive a free topping with every reuse, is on its way to expanding.
The company was founded in 2006 in New York City and has more than 45 locations across New York, New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Dubai. In the year it was founded, Just Salad started its in-store reusable bowl program. Then in early 2021, it launched a digital reusable bowl program that allows customers to order food online in a reusable bowl.
"We’re really trying to pursue circularity and the fast casual restaurant industry in more ways than one to suit different types of customers," said Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer at Just Salad. "We want to serve the customer who goes into the store, we want to serve the customer who orders online directly with us, we want to serve the customer who orders on Deliver Zero," a third-party delivery service that partners with restaurants and enables them to use reusable containers.
In July, Just Salad had its largest capital raise (an undisclosed amount) with Closed Loop Partners and Panda Restaurant Group, parent company of Panda Express, a returning investor. Panda previously invested in Just Salad in 2016.
"We are impressed with Just Salad’s innovative approach to embedding zero-waste principles across their business. They are a pioneer of reuse models at scale, creating the world’s largest restaurant reusable program and illustrating their commitment to extending the life of valuable packaging materials," said Ron Gonen, founder and CEO of Closed Loop Partners, in a statement. "Their continued growth demonstrates the viability, feasibility and desirability of circular business models."
Just Salad plans to use the capital to expand geographically and launch new environmental sustainability and technology initiatives. For example, in 2022, it will expand its reusable bowl program to digital orders and incentivize customers by offering loyalty rewards in its mobile app, which it hopes will encourage "sustainable eating on the go."
An international player
While the companies mentioned above have smaller size and carbon footprints, other big food industry players are getting in on the reuse action, including Burger King.
The scale of a reuse program for the hamburger monarch could be huge. It operates more than 17,800 locations in more than 100 countries, according to Restaurant Brands International, Burger King’s parent company. Nearly 100 percent of its locations are owned and operated by independent franchisees. Its revenue in 2020 was about $1.6 billion, according to RBI.
In October, Burger King announced a partnership with packaging reuse pioneer Loop to pilot reusable packaging for items such as the Whopper and drinks in New York City; Portland, Oregon; and Tokyo. In May, it said it planned to add Paris and London to the list of cities where it would run pilots. When I spoke in the spring to Matthew Banton, vice president of innovation, category management and sustainability for the Americas at Burger King, the fast food company expected the pilot to start in the third or fourth quarter of this year. (Burger King didn’t respond to requests for an update before our deadline, but we expect an update soon.)
Banton said the company hopes to learn about three main points during the pilot: how many guests adapt to the overall program, the operational implications of it, and the barriers or any hurdles to scale.
Reuse expectations cooked into policy
When it comes to changing systems, there is often the need to push down multiple levers at once. That could be the case for making reusable food containers the norm in the U.S.
Gordon of Upstream said that the fast food model is the most challenging to change because the facilities in that part of the food industry are designed around disposability.
The bottom line is we have to just change the culture where it is possible to design your food service business to be completely disposable.
"They don't have the space for the commercial dishwashing that would be required to do all reusable," she said. "But we believe that what we need to do is change that model."
In Berkeley, California, Upstream helped to pass 2019 legislation that would require restaurants across the city to make all of its all dine-in foodware reusable and all take-out foodware compostable by 2020. The pandemic made that challenging, with California’s COVID-19 restaurant guidelines that encouraged the use of disposable items.
Gordon also noted that the climate crisis is accelerated when packaging is made using other materials — for example, chopping down more trees to create single-use paper products and growing more corn and agricultural products to turn into packaging. "We don't have the luxury of time to wait for the market to respond to consumer demand," she said.
Legislators who want to know how to crack the single-use plastic problem with a shift to reusables often contact Upstream, according to Gordon.
"We could wait for consumer demand to drive that change because consumers are getting very engaged in demanding better solutions," Gordon said. "But policy is a way to accelerate that change and put it on a fast track, which we really need when we're in the middle of a climate crisis that is being fueled by plastics production."
The type of legislation that Upstream would like to get enacted in the future is one that would restrict food businesses from obtaining permits to operate unless they are designed for reuse from the beginning.
"The bottom line is we have to just change the culture where it is possible to design your food service business to be completely disposable," Gordon added. "We just have to end that way of designing food businesses."