Mass. Company Provides ‘Usefull’ Solution to Single-Use Food Containers
October 20, 2022
It happens to even the most faithful environmentalist: You arrive at your favorite morning coffee stop, only to realize [sad trombone] you’ve forgotten to bring your reusable mug.
In fact, most Americans either forget or don’t even bother with reusable cups, as evidenced by data that show the country tosses out 108 billion single-use cups annually.
But what if your coffee shop had reusable mugs on demand that you could carry out with you and return to any other participating coffee shop when you were done?
Alison Rogers Cove, founder and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Usefull, envisions just such a circular foodware solution that would spell the end of disposable takeout products, most of which are not recyclable and wind up in a landfill or as litter.
Usefull, an app-based foodware service that provides silicone-lidded stainless-steel containers for customers to check out and return (like a library book), recently wrapped up a pilot program on Block Island.
The pilot, run in partnership with the Block Island Conservancy, was supported by a Small Business Innovation Research grant funded through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A handful of cafes, a food truck, and a farmers market participated.
“The pilot was very successful in testing out a lot,” Rogers Cove said. However, she admitted there were challenges in running the program in a largely transient community of day-trippers, where not all food-service providers opted into the system, and where single-use takeout containers were still an option.
As she scrolled through various program metrics on her laptop, Rogers Cove noted her data show a closed-loop returnable program such as Usefull’s has a better success rate in places where there is an outright ban on single-use takeout containers.
“From a business perspective, we can’t take the risk of going into a community without a ban. That’s part of our lesson learned,” she said. Marin County in California is one of the few municipalities that has passed such a ban, which will take effect Nov. 10, 2023.
As a result, Usefull has decided to focus its business efforts on serving colleges and universities invested in eliminating single-use takeout products on campus.
“We are finding our sweet spot to be college campuses right now,” Rogers Cove said. “That’s, in part, because this requires an ever so slight, but real, behavior change. College campuses are able to fully commit to their zero-waste goals and eliminate the option of single-use packaging.”
On participating campuses, students download the Usefull app, place their takeout order, and scan a tracking code on their takeout container. After they are used, the containers — bowls and cups — can be dropped off at any of Usefull’s return locations on campus, regardless of where the container was checked out. Once the containers are returned, they are run through commercial-grade dishwashers and put back in circulation.
Users are only charged if they return the container late — schedules vary by location — or if they lose the container.
The idea for Usefull was born in 2013, when Rogers Cove was working in management consulting. She would treat herself if she got in before 7 a.m. by ordering ahead at Starbucks, and her on-the-go lifestyle often meant she got takeout for lunch.
“Junk was piling up at my desk, and I had this moment of reflection: ‘Alison, you consider yourself an environmentalist; you get so angry when you see trash around and piles of waste. Why can’t you be bothered to bring reusable stuff?’
“I had a cabinet full of reusable stuff at home that would stay at home. And I would never bring it with me. For me it all came down to convenience.”
The Massachusetts resident, who began her career working for the EPA, created a pitch deck for the idea of returnable foodware in 2013. But it wasn’t until 2018 that she shared her idea outside her social circle, when she presented at a Boston Globe pitch event with angel investors.
The next couple of years were spent working in partnership with several Boston businesses, including Render, Flour Bakery + Café, and Reebok. But everything came to a halt in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the city.
“That was when we pivoted to colleges,” Rogers Cove said, because it wasn’t clear when downtown Boston was going to reopen. She and her team figured college revenue was tied to having bodies on campus and bet that colleges would be first to reopen.
The first college to partner with Usefull was Mount Holyoke, followed by other Bay State colleges and universities. To date, no Rhode Island school has signed onto the program.
“We would love to get Rhode Island’s colleges on board. I would think it’s such a natural fit with it being an ocean state,” Rogers Cove said.
As for the future of returnable foodware on Block Island?
“We are working on what our strategy is and communicating with the Block Island Conservancy to figure out how we can keep working together. We know that we’re outsiders in the community there, and we don’t want to push ourselves on them, but we hope they see this is an opportunity,” Rogers Cove said.
I would love to see this program at local seafood markets and delis. Nearly every time I ask that my purchase be wrapped in butcher paper without a plastic bag, the reaction is something like, “gee, is that legal?” I assure them it is, but it gets tiresome constantly having to create chaos. Of course, they’re not allowed to use a container that I bring in. And, yes, we need more bans on single use packaging so these programs can move in with some confidence to succeed.