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Is reuseable ware in the future of takeout food?

Every Thursday, Jay Hamada sells warm platters of Japanese curry from his bright orange truck parked on the corner of New Montgomery and Mission streets. He uses compostable containers as much as he can, but customers typically want their curry sauce on the side. This means he has to use little plastic ramekins to serve it.

“I hate using plastic,” Hamada, the owner of JapaCurry, told me. “I had a restaurant in Japan on the beach in Okinawa and there was a ton of plastic around coming from South Asia. I’ve been looking for a solution for a while.”

Fortunately, Hamada’s in luck: Dispatch Goods, a new business started by graduate students at UC Berkeley, will offer restaurants and food trucks reusable stainless steel containers to replace disposable foodware starting in October. Customers are then encouraged to return the container to a designated drop-off location.

The operation is small right now. Dispatch Goods is only offering the pilot program at JapaCurry on Thursdays and Ayola on New Montgomery every day. Both places serve a lot of Yelp employees, and the tech company has offered to collect reusable containers. Dispatch Goods will then pick up the containers from Yelp, wash them, and bring them back to JapaCurry and Ayola for customers to use again.

“Many people carry a reusable water bottle and coffee cup, but it’s difficult to carry everything you’ll need throughout the day,” Lindsey Hoell, CEO of Dispatch Goods, told me. “We’re trying to make the process seamless — a system that mimics current consumer behavior, so everyone can contribute to this systems change.”

Like Hamada, Hoell was also turned off plastic after seeing its disastrous impact on the world’s beaches. Before enrolling in the business school at UC Berkeley, the longtime surfer lived in Hawaii and ran the Surfrider Foundation’s “Ocean Friendly Restaurants” program. She helped numerous restaurants reduce their waste by making simple changes, including providing reusable foodware for onsite dining. Now, Hoell wants to help food vendors do the same for to-go orders.

She and her business partner, Jessica Heiges, a PhD candidate in environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, launched Dispatch Goods last year.

Heiges previously conducted pilot programs at on-campus cafes to understand the feasibility and costs associated with transitioning to more reusable foodware. She found that making the switch has significant financial benefits. Other studies have also found that restaurants could save over $150,000 by avoiding disposable item purchases.

This is one of the reasons why Ayola decided to participate in the pilot with Dispatch Goods. Fadi Masarweh, the owner, told me he could save $15,000 a year with the change.

“The to-go containers aren’t cheap,” he said. “I already have a few of my regular customers who bring a container from home, which is great. This will help even more.”

Hoell said that she’s currently in talks with other restaurants and food delivery services to expand the program, and four to five may participate in the pilot when it starts in October.

The warm reception makes sense. Beyond the visible impact plastic has on our beaches, extracting oil and gas for plastic production contributes to climate change. Disposable packaging also contains hormone disrupting and carcinogenic chemicals. People are becoming more aware of the broader environmental and health issues associated with single-use living, and businesses are hungry for services such as Dispatch Goods.

Legislation targeting single-use plastic could provide even more incentive to find alternatives. In July, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced a “Reuse Ordinance” that would require food vendors to charge customers for non-usable beverage cups and food containers. State legislators are also considering a phase-out of non-recyclable, single-use packaging by 2030. Both laws, if passed, could inspire more businesses to go reusable.

But ultimately the success of Dispatch Goods lies in the hands of customers. Grabbing a warm platter of Japanese curry or falafel salad at lunch is a privilege that typically comes with an environmental cost. With Dispatch Goods we can continue living our lives, but without the plastic and waste. All we need to do is return the container when we’re done.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

Robyn Purchia

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Robyn Purchia
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