Insights / Industry Trends / This New Reusable Packaging Concept Wants to Help Reduce Restaurant Takeout Waste
 This New Reusable Packaging Concept Wants to Help Reduce Restaurant Takeout Waste

It’s hard to throw shade on takeout and delivery when off-premise business has become a miracle lifeline for countless restaurants across the past two years. But the truth is, the carryout business is a notoriously “trashy” one. 

Most fast-casual dining, and nearly all takeout and delivery, is executed entirely with throwaway containers. And those disposables pose a notable impact to the environment, contributing to significant greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water consumption, and resource extraction. With the pandemic skyrocketing the online food delivery market – now projected to reach nearly $200 billion by 2025 – the impact is only expected to grow.

Fortunately, there’s a reuse economy beginning to emerge, with startups surfacing across the country that are driven to help fix the problem of packaging waste. One company to keep a particular eye on within the restaurant industry is DeliverZero. Based out of New York City, the startup is on a mission to make it easy for operators to swap their current takeaway packaging with reusable containers.

“The restaurant industry is the source of 72% of single-use packaging, so if we’re trying to tackle that problem, the restaurant industry is the best possible place to start,” says Lauren Sweeney, co-founder and CEO of DeliverZero. “Many operators are already switching their packaging to compostable options, but that stuff is just as problematic – there’s the agricultural, manufacturing, and shipping emissions, and then typically, the containers aren’t actually composted, meaning they end up in the landfill and emit methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.”

DeliverZero wants to offer restaurants BPA-free clamshells that can be used up to 1,000 times. And its current plan includes providing those containers to restaurants for free.

So how does it work? DeliverZero launched as a standalone platform at the end of 2019, partnering with restaurants in New York City and inviting customers to order directly through their online platform. In 2021, the company expanded by integrating with DoorDash for a pilot that included 113 restaurants. And after seeing success, the company is now in the process of building a version that will allow them to integrate with any number of third-party platforms.

The idea, says Sweeney, is to prevent operators from having to add yet another tablet, and another new platform, to their kitchen operations. Customers will be able to order directly through third party apps and check a box to receive reusable packaging. They’ll also be able to place orders through the DeliverZero website or app, and those orders will get routed through a third-party platform’s tablet. 

“We want to make it as easy as possible for restaurants to participate in a solution to a problem that’s inherently part of the restaurant industry, but that doesn’t have to be,” says Sweeney. 

DeliverZero provides restaurants with containers, and customers who opt-in will be charged 25 cents per container. In some cases, restaurants can opt to absorb the cost. Regardless, the service has the potential to reduce costs and also attract new customers.

“We’re helping restaurants save money on single-use packaging – anywhere from 12 cents to 85 cents per container, depending on what they're using, which adds up,” says Sweeney. “And customers care about this. Our surveys have shown that 86% of customers ordered from a restaurant that they’ve never ordered from before just because that restaurant was on DeliverZero.” 

Once an order is delivered, customers get six weeks to return the containers to any participating restaurant. Otherwise, they’re charged $3.25 plus tax for each container they keep. Restaurants are tasked with washing all containers, just as they would any other dinnerware.

“We always say, if you’re comfortable eating off a fork or plate washed from a restaurant, you should be comfortable eating out of these containers,” says Sweeney, noting that operating without a dishwashing facility is what’s made the company scalable. 

DeliverZero is on track to roll out the new version of its platform by this summer in several additional markets beyond New York, with a target of around 1,000 restaurant partnerships. If all goes well, Sweeney says the plan is to scale quickly and widely. “We could be scaling this rapidly as soon as the fall,” she says.

Many of the restaurants already involved in the DoorDash pilot say they plan to continue using the service. 

“It’s a win-win. We save money because we can reuse the same containers, it’s a win for the customers, and it’s a win for the planet,” says Liad Matatyahu, general manager of DeliverZero partner Cafe Mogador. “And it doesn’t take us any extra work.” 

Operators who are interested in partnering in the future are invited to get in touch by email at hello@deliverzero.com or through chat on DeliverZero’s website. Sweeney says she’s building relationships with restaurants now so that as soon as ready, DeliverZero can launch with restaurants nationwide.

Sweeney says one of the most exciting parts since launching has been seeing customers’ enthusiasm.

“Our customers will often take pictures and post on social media and tag us,”  says Sweeney. “To be excited enough to share the packaging that your food came in on social media – that’s kind of unusual.”

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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