Reusable Containers Tackle Takeout Trash

A relatively new zero waste initiative aims to partner with restaurants in Boulder to develop an alternative to take-out trash through durable, reusable, returnable takeout containers.  For KGNU’s Follow The Waste series, CU Boulder student Wyatt Brown reports.


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    Reusable Containers Tackle Takeout Trash Alexis Kenyon

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During the pandemic, as more people chose to eat at home, waste from takeout containers began to pour into landfills.  

Looking to cut back on what has become one of the most wasteful parts of the food industry, one company that is gaining traction across Boulder has come up with what they say is a better way.

DeliverZero, which operates out of New York, Denver, Boulder, and Chicago, partners with consumers and restaurants to provide returnable and reusable takeout containers.

According to Emily Freedman, a policy advisor with the city of Boulder’s circular economy program, the heavy-duty, washable, food-grade plastic design is a more eco-friendly solution than single-use or even compostable containers. “These containers are rated to be used at least 1000 times, if not more,” Freedman said. “So if you think about that impact versus a single use every time you’re going out, you’re throwing away or attempting to recycle or compost those containers, it seems like a no-brainer to us.” 

Getting more restaurants and customers involved with smarter composting is tricky.

“It’s kind of like a chicken and egg, in a sense,” Freedman said. “If you don’t have enough restaurants or restaurants that people frequent enough, then you’re not going to get the public involved. Also, if the public isn’t aware that the program exists, they can’t go to their favorite restaurants and help encourage the expansion of DeliverZero,” Freedman said. 

Then, there’s the cost of composting.

Ashwin Ramdas, Chief Technology Officer of DeliverZero, says that for restaurants, buying non-reusable compostable containers can get expensive. While DeliverZero’s reusable containers are cheaper than single-use plastics or compostables in the long run, getting them into rotation requires scaling and a learning curve.

Restaurants are just in general hard to sell to because they’re the most overworked industry, and they have the least margins,” Ramdas said. “So, they’re really conscious about doing anything different. Once they realize what we’re doing and how our system works and that it could save them money, they are pretty open to it.”

 DeliverZero containers have started to catch on.

One restauranteur who has accepted the challenge is Wayde Jester of Boulder’s Zeal Foods. He says the cost savings make sense because, in recent years, takeout has become a major part of his business. 

“The costs per unit for DeliverZero should end up being less than our unit costs for even compostable packaging,” Jester said. “The whole business of shifting to so much takeaway during the pandemic, we were adding a lot of stuff to what was going into either landfills or, you know, at best, composting bins. A lot more than we did pre-pandemic.”

As part of Boulder’s zero waste goal of recycling, composting, and reusing 85% of its waste by 2025, the city is partnering with DeliverZero to get reusable takeout containers into 50% of Boulder restaurants by 2025.

DeliverZero has been working out friction points along the way. They now partner with third-party food delivery services that allow customers to return containers on restaurant doorsteps rather than having to hand them in during business hours. 

Freedman says implementing the returnable, reusable container service has been easiest with small, locally owned restaurants. 

“National chains are a little bit harder to break into but I think focusing on those local chains and seeing that available would make the city, make myself, and make DeliverZero happy,” Freedman said. 

In the longer term, Ramdas says that the company hopes to expand to all the major delivery and ordering platforms. They also want to work with bigger national chains that are generating the most single-use plastic waste. 

“I’d say that if you care about single-use waste and you care about fighting it, get your takeout with DeliverZero,” Ramdas said. “You can get your food in reusable containers so you can continue getting your takeout without any of the guilt that comes with it.”

For now, much of the logistics of getting the reusable takeout containers into restaurants comes from customers leveraging their buying power and letting restaurant owners know they’d be on board with it. But, as with recycling, putting the responsibility on the consumer isn’t always the most effective option. Some would argue, however, that it is at least a promising start.

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    Reusable Containers Tackle Takeout Trash Alexis Kenyon

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Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.

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