It’s been said over and over: We can’t recycle our way out of our waste problems. Along with that mantra, we hear about reuse models, acclaimed for their sustainability benefits. By some accounts there’s big money to be made in this space: replacing 20 percent of disposable plastic packaging with reusable applications could translate to a $10 billion opportunity, says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Still, with all the talk and potential promise, this alternative to single-use packaging has been slow to gain traction.
Connecticut-based Re:Dish is among companies working to grow the model and play a part in chiseling away at the roughly one trillion pieces of single-use foodware and packaging used in the U.S. each year.
The company, which launched in March 2022, offers reusable food serviceware, mainly used in corporations’ and schools’ cafeterias, in the New York tristate area. It reaches about 15,000 employees and 5,000 students and school staff.
Its polypropylene (PP) containers are certified for up to 1,000 washes and are ground and made into new packaging at the end of their lives.
“Reuse is becoming a serious consideration for many operations. There is the realization that climate change is real; that you can’t just manage waste but you have to look at a way to reduce it. With that there is a greater appreciation for alternatives,” says Caroline Vanderlip, CEO and founder Re:Dish.
By her observations, while businesses get the positive environmental impacts they often hesitate to transition because they lack equipment and labor to set up operations in house.
A barrier for potential service providers interested in breaking into the reusable packaging space is the ability to wash, dry, and restock rapidly at scale. That’s where Re:Dish puts a bulk of its efforts.
In the first year, the operation washed about 430,000 items, avoiding 47 metric tons in carbon emissions and about 66,000 gallons of water consumption, based on a lifecycle analysis.
Growing and finetuning operations has been a learning experience.
“We developed Re:Dish without a lot of models to point to and found earlier that it’s not complicated to wash a handful of food serviceware items. But when you get to scale, delivering in a profitable way is complex. We’ve learned you need more than human labor. You need a whole system and operation processes to give efficiency,” Vanderlip says.
Automation and collection logistics have been key.
The dishwashers are “flight-type” machines – kind of like a car wash for dishes, she says. They’re large, with capacity to clean and sanitize 75,000 units a day at high temperatures.
The company worked with its manufacturer to customize the machines, finding regular commercial dishwashers do not dry PP well. Pulling containers from the unit and air drying them was not practical; it can take an hour or more, requires a lot of space, and has sanitation issues. So the flight machine manufacturer incorporated drying into the washing process.
Dirty containers are placed on a conveyor by SKU (there are eight SKUS for different container types) and automatically loaded into the machine.
Staff transport the dirties in six-foot-high laundry towers with bungy cords holding them in place, rolling the towers into the trucks and returning them to clients for the next pickup.
Software facilitates inventory management, regularly gathering and processing data on deliveries, collections, and SKUs, and forecasting supply needs.
The software also computes the environmental impacts of waste diversion, carbon emissions, and water reduction of each batch.
Vanderlip’s pitch to companies is this feature helps with ESG goals. Not only can they track impact of converting to reusables, but the software program generates progress reports, becoming increasingly important as governments and the general public prioritize sustainability.
“Corporations are being forced to address emissions through ESG requirements. And consumers and employees are looking for ways to support reduction of environmental impacts,” says Vanderlip, anticipating that these trends will drive a huge uptick in reusables at large.
Though the washing machines are powerful, they eat up little energy and water compared to what’s consumed in the manufacture of new plastics. Upfront costs are higher for the equipment and containers, but several studies show end users typically break even, at least on the containers, after a few uses. Both the economics and environmental impact keep improving with more uses.
Research shows for instance that using 500 paper cups consumes nearly 370 gallons of water, while washing one ceramic cup 500 times requires 53 gallons.
On the money and waste reduction fronts, a study looking at about 170 participants in the ReThink Disposables program showed small businesses switching to reusables saved between $3,000 and $22,000 a year, and they eliminated 1,300 to 2,200 pounds of waste.
For now options are limited, with a couple of early leaders in this space being Loop, who offers major brands and retailers a reusable system and, on a smaller scale, operations like GreenToGo that works mainly with restaurants who do carryout. As more models slowly pop up some other operations, like home meal delivery services, venues, and universities are making the switch.
School in the Square, a charter school for K-12th graders,
began using Re:Dish’s services in September 2022.
The transition has been relatively smooth, with staff and the kids, especially the youngest students, pretty happy with the new system.
“Our children have always been interested in and inspired by sustainability projects, and we wanted to introduce a program that allows them to see the difference they’re making,” says Carrie Amon, principal, School in the Square.
“We wanted to show the kids that it's possible to make simple changes that can have a big impact on our environment. This program also emphasizes the importance of being mindful of our actions and the consequences they have on our environment, and what better place to teach that than a school?”
Re:Dish has not turned a profit. There is a lot of upfront CapEx, including the machines, inventory of serviceware, and various buildout costs. Though Vanderlip sees a “clear path to profitability” in two to three years, and projects business to double by the second quarter of 2023.
The team is aiming to launch another facility on the East Coast by May 2023 and hopes to operate in six to eight markets by the end of 2024.
Vanderlip believes reuse will become a predominant form of waste management in time. And that it will become mainstream for more than food serviceware and packaging.
“We happen to focus on dishware at the moment because it’s so prevalent. But we are seeing reuse for gel packs, packaging for beauty products, and other applications. With the right infrastructure in communities, reuse can be supported at scale across many product lines.”