Could Deposit Programs Keep Disposable Take Out Containers Out of the Trash?

would you choose to reuse your take out containers?

If you live in an urban, or even suburban, setting, you probably do take out for dinner every now and then: it’s just really convenient (and often really tasty)! If you’re a good greenie, you have to balance that convenience and tastiness with the likelihood of the food coming in polystyrene foam or plastic-coated paper take out containers. Yes, a number of places have banned Styrofoam, and some restaurants have voluntarily shifted to biodegradable options, but foam and coated cardboard are still the materials of choice for carry out (at least in my experience). And, yes, some people are very good about buying and using their own reusable containers, but I fear that will never be more than a niche.

But what about a “bottle deposit” like system for reusable containers? Add a charge to the bill that a customer can get back when s/he brings the container back? Campus food service giant Sodexo is trying out a system like this at the College of William and Mary. According to student newspaper The Flat Hat,

“Choose to Reuse” offers students a reusable plastic container instead of a disposable container. Students can check out a reusable box by swiping their card twice: once for their meal swipe, once to register them into the program. From there, students sign a waiver stating that they will return their box or pay a $5 fee. The boxes are clear, green-tinted plastic and contain three food compartments.

Keep in mind that students still have the disposable option available, so they have to consciously choose the reusable option even when the more “convenient” choice is right there in front of them. It’s working, though: Sodexo Resident Distract Manager Jeff McClure used the words “gangbusters” and “off the charts” to describe the initial response: students were snapping the reusable containers right up. From what I can find, it looks like the company has tried this option on other campuses; I’m not finding much more information, though…

So, could this work in a more traditional restaurant setting for take out orders and doggy bags? I think the big question here, regardless of setting: will customers bring back the containers? Is the $5 deposit for the “borrowed” container enough to drive a behavioral change? I don’t know – I’m guessing there will be much more experimentation with the details of this program. But I really like the concept: not only does it attach monetary value to the take out choice, but it also also brings the responsibility for adding trash to the waste stream to the foreground. Take out is a choice… are we willing to account for the costs created by that choice?

Know of other innovative ways that food service companies and/or restaurants are encouraging reusable to go containers? Share them with us…

Image credit: Shutterstock

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