As pressure rises on restaurants to decrease their use of single-use items, a group of current and former students at the University of Alberta has come up with a way to make it easy — and free — to offer reusable containers for takeout.
"The bins were overflowing," co-founder Alesi Muhlbauer told Taproot. "That was really nice to see after working on it for so long."
Students request that their food or drink be served in a DishZero container. They scan a QR code on the container to sign it out, then return it to a drop-off station within 48 hours. DishZero volunteers collect the dirty dishes, take them to a catering kitchen to be washed, then put the clean dishes back into circulation.
The project is funded with a sustainability grant from the university's Energy Management and Sustainable Operations (EMSO) office and the Students' Union through its Sustainability and Capital Fund (SCF). That money allowed DishZero to acquire the containers and mugs, pay for ongoing dishwashing, and cover other costs associated with the pilot project.
Grant funding also means that neither the vendors nor the students have to pay for the service. DishZero's co-founders are looking into applying for non-profit status to make it easier to receive other grants and perhaps someday pay staff to look after the program instead of relying on volunteers, but they don't see a business opportunity here.
That makes it different from initiatives such as Re:vita, which emerged from the World's Challenge Challenge business contest at the U of A in 2021 with a plan to deliver takeout in stainless steel containers, coordinated through an app. That doesn't seem to be running, but a similar service called Suppli started in Toronto in 2019. Its pitch to vendors is that Suppli's reusable container service will bring them more business and help them get ahead of the federal ban on single-use plastics.
"This is not that. This is entirely us just wanting to reduce waste however we can," Muhlbauer said. "If we end up having paid staff, it's just so that it can be sustainable for them to put in that much work."
DishZero grew out of the merger of two separate waste-reduction projects. Muhlbauer and fellow co-founders Rojine McVea, Allegra Martel, and Keira Ostrosser have since graduated, but volunteer coordinator Ashley Krehut, who joined toward the end of 2020, is still in school, and the co-founders have kept their hand in to help marshal the project through the pandemic shutdowns to finally launch.
"Ultimately, we were a little too stubborn," said Martel, who now works on campus as a chemical engineer. "We wanted to leave it in a spot where it was running and established enough that it would continue even once we were off of campus."
You have to have a University of Alberta ID number to use DishZero. The founders are hoping to extend the service to other vendors on main campus, and perhaps to other UAlberta campuses, though Muhlbauer said it would be great if this pilot ended up being a proof-of-concept for a practice that becomes fully integrated into food services on campus.
Though DishZero is unlikely to extend to the broader community, the founders would be happy to advise anyone who wants to set up a similar program at their own school.
"We want waste-reduction to be as far out into the community as possible," Muhlbauer said. "And if we can empower people to do that, we'd love to do it."
After a years-long campaign by Waste Free Edmonton, Edmonton's city council approved a single-use item reduction bylaw that will come into effect on July 1, despite concerns expressed by some restaurants.
The city's single-use item reduction grant, which offered businesses and organizations $700 to $5,000 to help mitigate the effects of the bylaw, has been fully allocated.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the names in the photo caption and to more accurately reflect how the co-founders came together.