The State Of Reusables

People Are Taking Action on Plastic Pollution

The public knows that single-use plastic is threatening the oceans. People watch Sir David Attenborough explain the effect on marine life in the popular Blue Planet 2, videos of unbelievable amounts of floating plastics amongst wildlife are being shared by amateur divers, research shows that plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050, and for many the constant list of realities have become the last straw.

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Removing a straw from a Sea Turtle

Consumers are saying no to single-use plastic. Signs of this shift are popping up everywhere, from consumers leaving plastic packaging at the store where it was purchased, more Zero Waste stores opening all the time to great fandom, and the growing acceptance of reusable solutions.


Governments are stepping in on all levels with legislation that reduces the potential for single-use plastics to enter the environment. Quite frankly, the materials are also unwanted in the waste streams too. Much of these plastics are low grade and do not perform well as commodities, especially since the whole China thing.

Just yesterday Vancouver announced it's Standing Committee on Policy and Strategic Priorities approved a recommendation to adopt the Single-Use Item Reduction Strategy. These recommendations will be put to Regular Council to approve on June 5, 2018.

Highlights from the strategy include:
  • Introduce a ban on the distribution of polystyrene foam cups/take-out containers and plastic straws starting June 1, 2019.
  • Introduce reduction plans for disposable cups and plastic/paper shopping bags. These plans will allow businesses to choose one of the below options:
    • No distribution of disposable cups or plastic/paper shopping bags
    • Disposable cups or plastic/paper shopping bags cannot be distributed for free 
    • Other mechanisms that will be proposed and finalized through consultation.
  • Set annual reduction targets expected to be met in the reduction plans, and that if these targets are not consistently met by 2021, the City implements a full distribution ban on single-use plastic bags and single-use cups.
  • Require disposable utensils to be given out only if customers ask for them, rather than receiving them automatically.
  • Issue an RFEOI for “Made-in-Vancouver” single-use item solutions such as a city mug share program and reusable straws.
  • All compostable single-use items (e.g., bags, cups, and containers) distributed by businesses must be approved compostable, which means that it has been tested and approved at a local compost facility. (THIS IS ACTUALLY A HUGE DEAL)
  • All paper-based single-use items must have at least 40% post-consumer content.
  • Explore options to recover the costs of collecting disposable cups in public waste bins and as litter from the businesses that generate this waste. - What Does It Mean For Businesses?

Reusable solutions stay high on the Zero Waste Hierarchy as they do not require the constant manufacturing of new units. How can this be accomplished while also not taking a huge step back from the convenience and safety plastics have allowed us to experience? What can a company do?

For some guidance and insight let's begin with a look at the standards of TRUEB Corp and LEAF and how their certification criteria relate to single-use packaging. Some examples will be of program participants, and others will not. These standards can apply to all companies, and showing how complying with these universal standards can also demonstrate the benefit to overall business processes. 

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In the TRUE program under the Reuse category, Credit 5 "Use reusable/durable food service ware", a point is given for providing reusable/durable alternatives to disposable service ware in employee break rooms and common areas, and to customers if applicable (Page 19).

The TRUE Leadership category goes a little further, Credit 4 "Take responsibility for company products and packaging" asks that participants physically take back all products and packaging produced and/or marketed under all company brands (Page 36).

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Even though B Corp is less about waste per se (Read how it rewards Zero Waste), it encourages participants to achieve related criteria, such as "Does the company have in place an active end-of-life product/component reclamation program to increase the useful life of parts and components?"(Environment: Outputs)

The LEAF program gives points for a participant's Reuse Programs: 2 Points for Reusable Mugs, 1 Point for Reusable Bags and 4 Points for Reusable Containers.

Some of the common traits include tracking what happens to the product or packaging after use and how it comes back? One segment that has seen a lot of attention and has applied the above practices is food and beverage retail. Let's look at some recent examples of how retailers and third parties have embraced and enabled these universal standards.

Would You Like A Side of Bacteria With That?

The most common sighted barrier by companies in relation to promoting reusable containers are health and safety issues. With proper washing there should be no issues, Public Health England sent out a reminder for residents to wash their reusable cups between uses just in case you forgot that you should. Because obviously, you should.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of New York updated its health code in 2014 (Article 81, section 81.46) to allow restaurants to provide customers with reusable food containers returnable for a refill as long as the:
a) Containers are washed and sanitized by the restaurant before reuse; or
b) Establishment obtains Health Department approval of a written standard operating procedure demonstrating that there is no contamination of food and/or food contact surfaces.

Article 81 reads:
(a) Beverage containers. Employees or consumers may refill consumers’ personal take-out beverage containers (such as thermally insulated bottles, non-spill coffee cups, and promotional beverage containers) with beverages that are not potentially hazardous foods, provided that beverages are dispensed in a manner that prevents contact with, or contamination of, the food contact surfaces of the beverage dispensing equipment.

(b) Other containers. An establishment providing consumers with returnable containers must wash and sanitize all such containers before reuse in accordance with §81.29 of this Article. An establishment that does not wash and sanitize patrons’ containers before reuse must obtain Department approval of a written standard operating procedure that demonstrates that there is no contamination of food and/or food contact surfaces. Such procedure must be maintained on the premises and made available at the time of Department inspection.

(c) Container materials. Reusable containers that will be washed and sanitized must be made of food grade materials resistant under normal conditions of use to scratching, scoring, decomposition, crazing, chipping and distortion, and of sufficient weight and thickness to be washed and sanitized in accordance with §81.29 of this Article.

Article 81 has shown other governments of the world that regulatory requirements can be adopted and met to help promote reusable container use for food and beverage. In 2017 the FDA in the US updated its Food Code to include a broader explanation of what is required under its regulation 3-304.17, "Refilling Returnables" (page 79). Here's a good article about Australia's regulations.

How Are Brands Doing It?

Major brands appear to be addressing the single-use food and beverage packaging waste dilemma in the usual way, slowly. The UK Plastic Pact, supported by the good people at WRAP, consists of 42 members and includes such companies as Premier Foods, Morrisons (no relation), Britvic, and Coca-Cola, they have all pledged to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging (no definition provided) and that the remaining will be reusable, recyclable or compostable. Here's a good little review.

As of right now, Morrisons asks consumers to bring their own containers for meat, the first major chain to do so, and announced only a month after Tesco in Scotland had banned customers own containers from the fresh cheese and meat counter even though they are also part of the Plastic Pact. Waitrose is part of the pact too, already they've announced all disposable cups will be removed from cafes by autumn 2018 (52 MILLION CUPS!!), yet simultaneously released a new butter packaging that was not recyclable, while their old packaging was. Drama.

While these big brands are slowly, hopefully, progressing, smaller shops are embracing these value-driven buyers and cashing in. A few great resources have emerged to assist these savvy Zero Wasters. Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson's website, has released a web app that helps users find bulk ingredients. The Bulk Finder has a search filter that will show only results that allow consumers to bring their own containers.

Euro shoppers can hop on to the Zero Waste Map to discover more than 700 resources to help them shop without rubbish.

Bepakt offers an open index of nearly all packaging-free / zero-waste / re-fill / bulk supermarkets and grocery shops.

Litterless has also developed a great list of shops embracing a Zero Waste shopping experience. Click to see Canada, or different regions of the US.

Don't Wait For An Opportunity, Make It!

Brands that respond with innovative solutions will be the winners here. Viewing containers as less of a product and more as a service is an emerging trend that appears very promising. Providing consumers with a convenient way to access the service, track use and make easy disposal/deposit/drop-off zones almost sounds too good to be true for potential users. For brands, it sounds especially sweet when you learn of its potential to drive consumers back for more. 

Electronically tracking containers may feel like the future of food distribution, but Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) has been in use for about 10 years with reusable consumer-focused products, mostly care of Whirley-DrinkWorks.

One of the first examples to arise was at Disney Land's resorts food and beverage services. A guest could pay for a cup and receive refills of soda and coffee for the duration of their stay. Some of the minor details from this video have changed, but here the hardcore Disney fans "DIS" get into their experience with the product (Don't worry, it starts where they begin talking about the RFID Cups).

Jump forward to a time with smartphones and a more eco-angle, we are beginning to see the implementation of RFID/App integration on a whole new level.

Cup Club is a "City Scale" trackable packaging as a service solution. Its simple tech delivers an easy way for customers to enjoy their coffee and not be held back by waste or keeping a cup at all times. Here's a recent interview with Safia Qureshi, founder and CEO at the recent "Official" launch in London.

Frank Green has a similar solution to Cup Club in that the chip is in the cup and connected to an App and/or Visa's new payWave system. Frank Green, however, doesn't want to own a bunch of dishes and definitely doesn't want to wash them either. So Franky gets you to buy a mug and top it up with credit so you can use it to pay each time you visit any participating cafes. An interesting hybrid between the Whirley system and communal models like Cup Club.

Some other RFID examples include:

 - A now out of business early version of the reusable cup RFID concept.

Smart Green Vending - A concept that provides dispensing (“vending”) machines for consumers to utilize special reusable containers for snacks.

Similar to RFID, NFC systems can also communicate ownership or payment details. Taking this forward one more notch though is the IntelliCup, a user-operated beer refill system where your phone pays for a beverage, then the user simply puts the cup in place to receive it.

Of course, reusability doesn't have to be all tech'd out with a chip inside, apps and automation can be employed on the delivery or access of a reusable container. Here are some recent examples:

TYME is kept simple; vegetarian, low overhead by only having kiosks and vending machine type locations and a clean and transparent recyclable jar for all of their offerings. And that's TYME's strongest attribute, for a fast food establishment they have a reusable package that they don't want to be ignored.

Go Box is a reusable takeout container where its distribution and collection is offered through food vendors and or central collection "drop sites". The App proves membership and shows vendors and return bins. Go Box also just announced a new Cup Share program in Palo Alto.

Cupanion is basically a reusable mug or bottle company. But they are doing some pretty cool things to stand out.
First, they have a scannable code on each container that allows you to use their app to track how much you've been drinking. Cool. 
The App also tracks how much trash you are preventing, Co2 saved and the amount of potential ocean pollution you are preventing by using reusable vs disposable. Very Cool.
Furthermore, they have also partnered with Fill It Forward which allows users to give a cup of clean water to someone in need each time they refill. Each cup given will help fund water-based projects around the world. Very Very Cool!!

Bring-Yo is a map based App that shows users what kind of discounts are available nearby to customers who bring their own cup.

Responsible Cafe
 is an online map of cafes that give discounts, amongst other things, to customers who bring their own mugs. It's free for all businesses to join.

TraX was a self-tracking mug reuse App that had an Indiegogo campaign but has seemed to of failed in the end.

RECUP - Show up to any participating cafe or restaurant, order your drink in a RECUP rather than a disposable one. You then pay one euro deposit for the cup... and get a discount on your order! When your cup is empty, just give it into any of the other participating establishments. Collect your one euro deposit and you can even leave the washing up to someone else.

Eco-Go (prototype) helps users find stores that allow reusable containers and rewards users with badges and Pokemon Go-like animations.

Less Tech, More Flec

Less technical even still are the systems that are done by simple cash deposits.

Government run programs for beer and wine bottles have been around for awhile, and many with great success. Here in Ontario, our Beer bottle program reports an 86.7% recovery rate with bottles being reused 15 times before being recycled. However, we have nothing around plastics.

Just back in March of this year, England announced it will be initiating a deposit scheme on all glass, aluminum and plastic beverage containers. I made some mention of this in a previous Zero Waste Business Review, basically, the people think it's about time and the companies are mostly embracing it.

On the business side, small chains and independent businesses are initiating models that are mostly managed in-house.

El Rojito has been selling/roasting coffee for almost 30 years in Germany with a fair trade producer directive. The reusable cup program, REFILL IT, is meant to be an extension of the companies ethical culture. The cups are available at a number of cafes and restaurants within downtown Hamburg, Germany.

BizeeBox is fairly close to the REFILL IT concept but with food containers. Many colleges and universities have adopted this or similar systems worldwide. Put $5 down, get a bin, get back your $5 once you return the bin. Done. I checked out one at the University of Guelph recently, check my Insta Post for some pics.

Green Tiffin delivers meals in reusable containers in San Fran. Tiffins are of course the concept of reusing stainless steel containers in India.

Planted Table is a Zero Waste startup food delivery business in Oakland. Meals are delivered to your door in signature Planted Table insulated bags. The meals arrive freshly packed in eco-friendly glass containers as individual servings that you can enjoy at home or easily bring to work or school. Containers are picked up weekly.

Just Salad is a New York headquartered restaurant that serves up salad, amongst other things, in a reusable bowl. The bowl is such a part of the brand it is even highlighted in their logo. The creativity doesn't stop there, re-used bowls are offered free toppings and special colors communicate everything from VIP (Red),  to unlimited refills for the month! (Green)

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Dream Zero, as mentioned above, is a reusable cup program I started with a friend Ryan Dymant of the Toronto Tool Library. We rent out our cups to events and wash them according to Canadian and City of Toronto's regulatory requirements. Last night Dream Zero sponsored a small event in Toronto where our cups were used for beer and other beverages and served along-side compostable food service ware, making for a simple and effective zero waste event.

On July 7th in the Junction neighborhood of Toronto, Dream Zero rentable cups will be at the Junction Night Market. Attendees will give a $2 deposit that will be returned to them when cups are returned at the end of the night. In addition, the staff has also decided to go with a reusable wooden drink token instead of paper, pretty cool!

What if I just want to bring my own? Of course, most cafes and restaurants will, or are beginning to, give you a small discount on your purchase. In the case of coffee, the Financial Times recently published an article looking at the Return Of Investment for consumers to purchase their own cup and use the discount to amount for the value of the cup.

Success Is Where Opportunity And Preparation Meet

As the TRUE, B Corp and LEAF programs outline, the new expectations for businesses is to have product reclamation programs that enable the reuse of service ware. Vancouver shows us that government regulations will move this process along quicker. The economic opportunity opening up for brands to entice customers to try new packaging solutions will also help to get consumers making less wasteful purchasing decisions. An empowered customer is a loyal customer :)