DeliverZero Lets New Yorkers Order Food in Reusable Containers

New Yorkers throw out a billion takeout containers a year. This can change that.

DeliverZero at Just Salad
DeliverZero at Just Salad.

DeliverZero

Single-use plastic waste is a huge problem, magnified these days by the pandemic and the fact that people cannot go out to very many places to eat – to the point that my colleague Katherine Martinko has pleaded "don't let the pandemic ruin the fight against single-use plastics." It's been really hard on those companies that were trying to do something about waste; Just Salad's Chief Sustainability Officer Sandra Noonan told Treehugger that her company had started a reusable bowl program, but her company's Reusable Bowl program was temporarily halted at the beginning of the pandemic and hasn't yet expanded to delivery and pickup.  However, she said they had signed up with a new operation, DeliverZero, at their Park Slope (Brooklyn) location. New Yorkers order a lot of takeout; according to DeliverZero:

"Manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of the 1 billion takeout containers we throw away each year contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, a major factor in climate change. And then the containers—used once and for mere seconds—sit in landfills as far as 400 miles away from NYC. Here’s the thing: as busy New Yorkers, we really don’t want to stop ordering takeout. For many of us, it would be a significant lifestyle change. A few of us have never turned our ovens on."

And that was written before the pandemic hit the city so hard. But with DeliverZero, you get your order in reusable containers. There is no deposit; you just return it to the delivery person the next time you order, or you drop it off at any of the restaurants on the platform. And that's what it is; it is not a delivery service where they deliver the food, that's up to the restaurant. It's a platform for a truly circular system that can eliminate waste.

DeliverZero containers

DeliverZero

Here at Treehugger, I have been saying for years that we can't just change the container, but we have to change the culture. But I am beginning to think I may have been wrong. My colleague Katherine notes that coffee chains like Tim Hortons are announcing reusable, returnable coffee cups, and now platforms like DeliverZero enable waste-free takeout. I have often called for deposits on everything and Timmy's is using a deposit system, but DeliverZero doesn't. I asked founder Adam Farbiarz why not and he explained:

"When we started we were collecting deposits. But that made everyone's head spin. If you order three rolls of sushi, how many containers is that? One? Three? It became complicated and clumsy to collect deposits while simultaneously giving the restaurant the freedom and flexibility to pack their food the way they see fit. So now we just let the restaurant use as many or as few containers as they want. After the restaurant packs the food, the customer gets an email that says, 'You're getting X containers with your meal.' If the customer doesn't return the containers within 6 weeks, we charge them. And the system works! Restaurants have no problem counting the containers, and customers appreciate that the restaurant has the freedom to use our containers in a manner that best presents and packages the food."

I also wondered whether, in this pandemic when nobody wants to touch anything and so many restaurants have gone all disposable, if there was any resistance or worry. After all, the plastics industry has been milking the pandemic for all it is worth, pitching disposables as safer. In fact, Adam Farbiarz says the pandemic has been good for business.

"People are comfortable using the containers and we have gotten no pushback from customers about it. For purposes of cleaning and sanitization, our containers are the same as ceramic plates or metal forks: they can go in a commercial dishwasher and stand up to intense heat. So if you're comfortable eating off a restaurant plate - and basically everyone is, even during the pandemic - then you shouldn't have any issue with our containers - and people don't. As for sales, sadly, the pandemic is keeping us all much more homebound, which means more takeout and delivery, so we are seeing a lot more volume in recent months."

It's also often a concern with deposit systems that people will just forget about the deposit and throw the package out anyway. But this isn't happening with DeliverZero; "People order through us because they want the system to work. They want the containers to be reused. So they return them." It is a conscious choice.

A key element of the concept is that the food containers are universal, not tied to one particular restaurant, so they don't have to go back to the same store like those Tim Horton cups. It is truly a separate platform for delivering food. It can work for anyone, which dramatically simplifies things and reduces costs.

Just Salad containers
DeliverZero at Just Salad.

DeliverZero

We have been dubious about what has been called the circular economy, worried that it had been coopted and was little more than fancy recycling. I wrote that we lived in a linear world that was designed around waste.

"Drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être."

DeliverZero shows that it doesn't have to be that way. It is just starting out and is only in New York for now, but the founders say "We have plans to expand into other cities as quickly as we can." I do hope that is soon; this is such a good idea, a big step toward going zero waste and building a truly circular food delivery system.