Reusable To-Go Containers Take Off in Durham

Thanks to recent legislation aimed at eliminating single-use plastic straws, reducing the restaurant industry’s disposable waste has been a hot topic. However, bans on polystyrene foam – colloquially referred to as Styrofoam, though this is actually Dow Chemical Company’s trademarked name for its extruded polystyrene material – have been around for decades, dating back to Berkeley, Calif.’s ban on the material in 1988. Over the past several years, universities and other institutions have turned to reusable to-go containers like Eco Take Outs by G.E.T. as an alternative to disposable carry-out boxes.

These systems, which are usually confined to a single campus or building, have not always seemed translatable to larger-scale implementations in counties and cities. That didn’t stop GreenToGo co-founders Crystal Dreisbach and Amy Eller from pursuing their dreams of a waste-free takeout solution for Durham, N.C. Since the program’s July 2017 launch, it has been added to 24 restaurants, gained 457 members, and kept 1,258 foam containers out of the trash.

How GreenToGo Works

GreenToGo is one of several sustainability and waste prevention initiatives overseen by Don’t Waste Durham, a local nonprofit of which Dreisbach is executive director. The program partners with local restaurants to offer reusable to-go containers that can be used by its members in place of foam containers.

Reusable to-go containers at a GreenToGo restaurant

To use the program, customers purchase an annual GreenToGo subscription that allows them to check out between one and four boxes at a time. Pricing starts at $25 and goes up $5 for each additional box. Once customers are finished with their reusable to-go containers, they can be dropped off at return stations – made by volunteers from recycled lumber – located near participating restaurants and businesses.

Then, a member of the GreenToGo team uses a bicycle-powered trailer and customized routes to collect dirty containers from the return stations.

“She brings them to the wash facility to wash and dry them on the drying rack, then re-shelves them at our headquarters,” Dreisbach says. “As the restaurants need more clean inventory, she restocks each of those participating restaurants.”

Beyond monetary costs related to participation – including an annual fee and one-time $100 return station fee – the program doesn’t require any legwork from restaurant owners and employees.

“One positive side effect is that we can market to restaurants that we provide a full service,” Dreisbach says. “They don’t have to do anything; they don’t have to deal with dirty containers, they don’t have to handle money. We’re almost like a highly technological warewashing service. We make [reusable takeout containers] possible with the infrastructure, the process, and the technology that we built.”

“They needed this to be as little work for them as possible,” Eller adds. “[We needed to] build the technology and the software that made it easy.”

That technology includes a mobile app for GreenToGo members, a QR-based system for checking boxes in and out, and the ability to monitor how many boxes are at each location and return station.

“We have a really nice dashboard on our back end, which shows the GreenToGo staff what the current inventory is at each restaurant, with a red, yellow, and green bar graph, so that we can see what status they are in terms of clean stock,” Dreisbach says. “Then we also have another bar graph that shows us the return station locations and how many dirty containers they have in them so we can prioritize on our routes.”

Getting the Green Light

Although GreenToGo launched in 2017, Dreisbach first thought of the concept in 2009, when she was “just a regular person [with] a dollar and a dream.” Her dream started to become a reality in 2011, after direct appeals to local restaurants finally yielded a response.

“After writing many letters to my local restaurants about Styrofoam and asking them to explore a more sustainable option, one restaurant wrote back to me, saying that they had been considering changing to a paper compostable box from their black Styrofoam boxes, but it was my letter that convinced them to do it,” Dreisbach says. “I was very excited by that, and it was a pivotal moment because I thought, ‘Wow! Maybe all my letter writing really is doing something.’ I wanted to take it to the next level, so I started working on a local Styrofoam policy ban, and doing lots of awareness-raising about Styrofoam, and that’s how Don’t Waste Durham was born.”

GreenToGo team members

By 2016, Don’t Waste Durham had the team members and community support needed to begin building the GreenToGo program.

“We had a Kickstarter campaign, which ended in December 2016,” Eller says. “Then it took us 6 or 7 months to get everything up and running.”

Although funding was an important step in launching GreenToGo, being able to install the program in restaurants across Durham hinged on another crucial factor: approval from the health department.

“Long before we got the money, we started inviting the Durham County Health Department to our Don’t Waste Durham meetings,” Dreisbach says. “That was probably the smartest thing we ever did because we really brought them along on the idea. At first, when a health department hears about reusable containers, they’re freaking out, thinking that you’re asking customers to bring it in and then they’d be handled by restaurant workers, but we’re going around [that issue]. We’re totally within the state health code, thanks to our partnership with the health department. They helped us design our standard operating procedure [and] our wash protocol; we’re fully inspected and permitted by them.”

Since buying or renting their own space equipped with warewashing equipment wasn’t a feasible option, the GreenToGo team sought out a partnership with a local business that would allow them to wash the reusable to-go containers in an existing facility.

“We knew we needed to find a wash facility partner with an existing dishwasher [in] a kitchen permitted by the health department that we could work out of,” Dreisbach says. “We talked to restaurants, catering companies, hotels, homeless shelters, and churches – you name it, we talked to them. Finally, the universe delivered us the most amazing organization partner we could ever have, a residential voluntary treatment organization for substance abuse recovery. They’re really well-funded and have these amazing state-of-the-art facilities and dining halls, and they allow us to come in twice a week to use their kitchen after-hours.”

Expanding the Reuse Economy

From the Kickstarter campaign backed by hundreds of supporters who helped raise $26,242 to dozens of business partnerships, GreenToGo was built with “lots of community love” that continues to help it grow.

An employee prepares a reusable to-go container

“We have participating restaurants, we have the individuals and families that buy the memberships and use GreenToGo, and then we also have business or corporate members,” Dreisbach says. “These are businesses within the community that support GreenToGo [and] would like to have this as a perk for their employees. They receive a membership at a discount rate – a group membership, basically – for all of the employees at their workplace, and then they also get their own return station for the convenience of their employees.”

GreenToGo has been rolled out in two dozen restaurants, but there are still several interested restaurants already signed up to be included next. Some of those restaurants have been supporting GreenToGo since before the program officially launched last year.

“We had what we call our early adopter restaurants, [or] founding restaurants,” Dreisbach says. “They were so forward-thinking that they were willing to come on board the GreenToGo family before we even had a product. We’ve been launching them three at a time, and once we get through the 30 founding restaurants, we thought, “Okay, then we’ll start approaching new restaurants.’ Well, a remarkable thing has occurred: We’ve got restaurant customers advocating for us in other restaurants that don’t have GreenToGo, and those restaurants are contacting us now.”

Reusable to-go containers used at a hot bar

The GreenToGo team is preparing to use what they’ve learned over the past year to scale the program to a city-wide level.

“We are showing that on a small scale, the circular reuse economy can work,” Dreisbach says. “One of our next steps is to take this to a municipal level – where our future, not-so-far-away dream is that it becomes the utility of the city. [If you look] at our existing operations, you can actually pull from that and see how we could scale to a bigger level. Now, we are building, from our experience, a new technology that we feel could be scaled to other places and possibly even other industries to eliminate throw-away containers.”

Ultimately, Dreisbach and Eller hope the program can be implemented even beyond Durham’s city limits. Now, their dream is for GreenToGo’s reusable to-go containers to not just be an alternative option for takeout, but a restaurant industry standard.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.