Help, I’m drowning in takeout plastic!

Help, I’m drowning in takeout plastic!

By Jane Goldenberg

Editor’s Note: With this article, we begin a series about new/local companies that are working to reduce waste. Please send us tips about others we should know about at

Part I: Pushing toward a more circular economy

With every takeout order I unwrap, I’m left with the sinking feeling that much of the plastic waste I place inside the recyclable bin will probably end up in a landfill. Mainly because Chicago is so bad at recycling.

Less than 9 percent of Chicago’s garbage is kept out of landfills, the worst recycling rate in the country. One of the problems is that so much of our so-called “recyclables” is deemed contaminated and trashed.

Meanwhile, as this pandemic continues, my heart breaks for all those restaurateurs who through no fault of their own are going broke or out of business, so I, like many others, continue to order takeout.

Multiply all these takeout orders by thousands, add in the PPE, and it’s easy to see why our proliferating plastic problem has gotten far worse.

While many restaurants have switched to recyclable or compostable containers, in a city where the recycling supply chain is so broken, this isn’t good enough.

That’s why we need reusable containers.

The good news is we may soon have an option to order out from a restaurant without taking in so much additional trash.

Recently, our Zero Waste Warriors learned about Dispatch Goods, a San Francisco start-up looking to enter our market. Dispatch, which distributes reusable containers for restaurants to use for takeout and delivery, began circulating a petition at the end of last year to gauge support in the Chicago area for their system.

Climate Reality Chicago is sharing their petition in hopes of jumpstarting a larger push for reusable containers for restaurant takeout. The Shedd Aquarium, an influential player on sustainability, is also sharing the Dispatch petition.

But we can do more. For instance, we can insist our local restaurants offer opt-out options when ordering takeout, so that we can avoid getting so much unnecessary plastic — such as utensils, napkins, extra sauce packets, straws, etc. — with our food order. And can they please ban Styrofoam and pack the order in paper, not plastic bags?!

To be sure, the pandemic has put a great strain on our restaurants, but the experience of Dispatch is that reusable containers don’t have to be a burden. Becoming more sustainable could actually be a money saver since restaurants won’t have to buy so much plastic stuff that most of us don’t want.

What distinguishes Dispatch from other companies offering reusable containers in other markets is that they use containers made from stainless steel with silicone lids and not plastic. They also handle all aspects of the logistics, from supplying the containers, then collecting and sanitizing them.

In this nascent business of reusables, other companies I discovered, such as Deliver Zero in New York City and Go Box in Portland, Ore., use plastic and generally rely on the restaurants to wash them.

“Plastic is easy, but it is not better,” said Maia Tekle, chief operating officer of Dispatch. “And we don’t want more plastics in the world.”

People “don’t love eating out of cardboard and plastic,” she said, and “chefs like plating in stainless steel more than they ever liked plating in plastic.”

Stainless steel has another major advantage in that it can be used indefinitely, Tekle said. By contrast, plastic has a finite number of uses before it must be recycled. Of course, San Francisco has one of the best recycling programs in the country.

Tekle, whose last job was with Caviar food delivery service, partnered with founder Lindsey Hoell last January.

The inspiration for Dispatch came to Hoell when she was living in Hawaii and used to go looking for beaches undisturbed by other people only to discover they were full of microplastics, Tekle said.

Hoell realized the problem had to be tackled at its source. Her first endeavor was to join up with the Ocean Friendly Restaurant Program to find ocean friendly alternatives for takeout and delivery for restaurants.

But she soon realized the only real alternative was reusables, and before long Dispatch was born.

Read Part II: How the Dispatch system of reusables works

Jane Goldenberg was trained by The Climate Reality Project in 2019 in Minneapolis. She is currently Communications Chair of the Chicago Chapter.


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