One night almost 10 years ago, Crystal Dreisbach abruptly sat up in bed. She had figured it out.
She knew what the world needed: reusable takeout containers.
After the idea began to form in her head, it never left her mind again. She told everyone she knew about the concept of providing reusable takeout containers. Some of them entertained her notion, while others questioned the idea’s feasibility.
She didn’t have specific answers to questions about how restaurants would get the containers back and wash them, but she knew she had to keep pursuing her plan.
Dreisbach entered her idea into a magazine contest called “Extraordinary solutions for everyday problems.” She won second place, behind an idea for a wearable bike lock.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that idea is pretty good, but I’m trying to change the world here,’” she said. “But I was very validated by the fact that someone thought my idea was good.”
In 2013, Dreisbach officially started a nonprofit, Don’t Waste Durham, with the mission to create solutions that prevent trash. Dreisbach’s original idea of reusable takeout containers is one of its revenue-generating programs, called GreenToGo, founded in 2017.
GreenToGo supplies customers and restaurants with reusable takeout containers, then picks them up from drop-off locations, washes them and restocks them. As of now, 25 restaurants and two grocery stores participate in the program across Durham.
The current revenue model includes individual customers buying subscriptions, as well as the restaurants and grocery stores paying a servicing fee. Eventually, though, that may change, Dreisbach said.
As a customer, you can download the app and check out boxes to use. There are different tiers of subscriptions that allow various numbers of boxes to be checked out at one time. For a whole year of checkout privileges for a one-box membership, the price is $25.
GreenToGo also offers corporate employer subscriptions. At Burt’s Bees, for instance, the company pays for privileges for all of their employees and then has a return station in the building.
Knocking—And Knocking—On The Door
Dreisbach began her reusable containers journey by sending out letters to all of her favorite local restaurants. She told them how much she enjoyed their restaurant, but how bad styrofoam was for the environment. She asked them to make a change in their takeout containers.
After about 200 letters over the span of two years, Dreisbach finally got a response. The restaurant owner said they had been thinking about switching to compostable containers for about a year, but her letter finally drove them to do it.
“Of course I was over the moon,” Dreisbach said. “Angels were singing and I was so happy because, wow, I made a change. A small one, but a change.”
Currently, the empty containers are picked up from return stations by a bicycle and trailer. However, Dreisbach has much bigger goals. Don’t Waste Durham is focused on systemic changes.
The company pitched the idea of using the city’s recycling program for the takeout containers to Innovate Durham, and won a 12-week partnership with the City of Durham that’s going on right now.
“We have to think about scaling and especially if we want to replicate in other cities,” Dreisbach said. “So let’s tap into a resource that already exists in almost every city, which is the recycling industry.”
Customers can put their reusable containers into their normal recycling bins. Each container is now equipped with an RFID tag to keep track of its location. Dreisbach and her team are monitoring the collection and sorting of the boxes to see if the program will work.
The project will conclude in December, and Dreisbach will give a final presentation detailing the company’s findings with the hopes of making the program permanent.
More On The Way
Don’t Waste Durham has also rolled out a program called Bull City Boomerang Bag, which is a circulating citywide reusable bag program. Customers can take and return the reusable tote bags at participating grocery stores or farmer’s markets.
In January, the company is also rolling out GreenToGo reusable coffee cups at local coffee shops.
The most valuable part of GreenToGo is its data analytics, Dreisbach said.
“As they say in the tech industry,” she said, “data is the new oil.”
Their app monitors things like how many clean containers are at restaurants, as well as the collective community impact of GreenToGo.
“We feel very strongly that the rising trend in the circular economy design is going to be very much based around technology and data,” Dreisbach said. “That is what we’re building.”