Stainless steel takeout containers might be the food packaging of the future

Reusables founders Anastasia Kiku and Jason Hawkins aim to make sustainable choices as easy as single-use.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in B.C., local restaurants saw an influx of takeout orders—and consumers saw an influx of takeout waste. Anastasia Kiku and Jason Hawkins, co-founders of Vancouver-based Reusables, watched as the garbage piled up. “The problem was really in our faces,” Kiku says.

Hawkins, who was working for grocery delivery company, knew that packaging was at the forefront of conversations in the grocery and hospitality industries. That, combined with the pair’s love for the environment (“We’re both skiers and spend a lot of time in the outdoors,” Kiku notes), inspired them to develop a more sustainable solution than single-waste takeout containers. They launched the Reusables container program this March.

According to Kiku, the goal of the company is to make the environmentally friendly option just as easy as the piles-of-garbage one. “Being sustainable, or doing the right thing, requires that extra step, but we’re aware of that and trying to design this in the way that makes sense from both perspectives,” she says. Here’s what switching to Reusables looks like for both restaurants and consumers. 

For restaurants: 

  1. Once you come on board with Reusables, the company gives you an inventory of containers. This can vary greatly; Kiku says some restaurants start with 10 containers and some start with 130 or more. 
  2. When you receive an order where the customer has indicated that they want Reusables containers instead of single-use, the restaurant packages the order in the company’s stainless steel containers with silicon lids. 
  3. As the food goes out the door, the restaurant scans the QR code on the container, which is connected to the consumer. After that, the container is out of sight, out of mind. Until… 
  4. The customer returns the rinsed container. From there, the restaurant can either clean the container in their commercial-grade dishwasher, or arrange for Reusables to pick up the dirty containers and have them washed by their cleaning partner located in South Granville. 

For consumers: 

  1. Download the Reusables app and pay the $5-a-month membership fee. There’s a one-month free trial on now.
  2. When you order from a restaurant that uses Reusables, indicate that you want reusable containers (you can do this online or over the phone). 
  3. Once you receive the order and eat your food (and give yourself a pat on the back), rinse the container. 
  4. Return it to any restaurant that uses Reusables (it doesn’t have to be the restaurant you ordered the food from). 

So far, Reusables has about 1,000 of its stainless steel containers in circulation in Vancouver, and that number is about to double—it’s launching with a group of restaurants in Deep Cove on Monday, October 18. The 20-plus establishments include Bluhouse Market & Café, Bean Around the World, Cafe Orso, Momiji Japanese Cuisine, the Raven Pub and Scratch Kitchen. Reusables will also be available at Fresh St. Market (their first grocery partner) in Vancouver House starting on the 18th. 

As modern as this solution may feel, Kiku compares it to a couple of traditional borrowing practices: milk jugs and library books. “Surprisingly, our shrink rate so far has been around 2 or 3 percent—we get almost all the containers back,” she says. The app helps with that: each container is connected to its last user, and they get a reminder to return it. Plus, failing to return a container can cost a consumer up to $25, so that’s a pretty good incentive.

At every step, Kiku says the aim was to make the program as economical, safe, convenient and functional as possible. We want it to be just as simple as single-use.

You can find a full list of Reusables participating restaurants here.