In San Francisco, like most other American cities, many people eat out or order takeout almost five days a week. Unsurprisingly, that adds up to a lot of empty containers–on average, someone who always brings leftovers home might throw out more than 300 boxes in a year.
A new startup hopes to change that pattern. GO Box SF, an offshoot of a company first launched in Portland, Oregon, wants to help every restaurant offer reusable containers instead.
“For years I have been troubled at the sight of the overflowing recycling and trash bins after the lunch rush at my work,” says founder Paul Liotsakis. “I worked for an environmental nonprofit dealing with energy matters, and it was like a slap in the face every time I would go down for lunch.”
Liotsakis never planned to tackle the issue himself. “I fantasized that one day someone would come up with a more sustainable solution, but left it at that,” he says. But after hearing about the original GO Box program in Portland, he decided to license the idea for San Francisco.
It works like this: Participating restaurants will have a stack of clean GO Boxes on hand for anyone who signs up for the program. After customers finish their food at home or work, they can drop the box off in a collection bin. The company picks up the boxes, washes them all in a commercial kitchen, and brings them back to restaurants. Any given box can last for as many as 500 uses.
Even if someone recycles or composts every box they bring home right now–as city law technically requires–the startup argues that a reusable box is still a better option. “Each of those disposables needs to be manufactured, shipped a long way, and cared for at its end of life, leading to significant environmental impacts,” its website notes.
It’s also tricky for someone to bring a personal container from home–FDA rules say that restaurants can’t handle containers that haven’t been professionally sanitized. While a customer could technically pull out a box after a meal and dish out their own leftovers, few would, and it’s not a system that could work at a fast-paced lunch counter.
The startup has a challenging business model–customers have to pay to be members of the program, at $29 a year, while they can currently get regular takeout boxes for free. But when the company ran a pilot with a handful of restaurants, the restaurants offered free food as an incentive to offset the cost.
Liotsakis says advertising will be key to make the program widespread enough to actually replace disposable boxes–or a change in local laws.
“I think sponsorship via advertising could be the breakthrough,” he says. “However, looking at the pressure that cities are under to reduce waste and curb overflowing landfills, I would not rule out that a ban or charge for disposables could become reality one day.”
If the startup takes off, the biggest potential impact might come from the food saved inside the containers–not the containers themselves. How much half-eaten Thai food goes straight in the trash? It’s possible that knowing a container has to be returned might be just enough motivation for more people to remember their leftovers.
GO Box is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo.