Q&A with Samantha Sommer, Director of Business Innovation, UPSTREAM

As restaurants and workplaces reopen under pandemic-era guidelines, they face the challenge of safely serving their customers and taking care of their employees, all while complying with complex municipal regulations and without compromising the health of our planet.

Government mandates and misinformation are creating more challenges as they put pressure on foodservice operators to serve everything using single-use disposable items, like individually packaged orders for takeout. This trend toward single-use is causing a serious setback to waste and plastic pollution reduction efforts as market data show single-use – especially plastics – are in higher demand as a result of the global pandemic.

Thankfully, one organization is laser-focused on turning the tide from this COVID-era trend so damaging to our environment and our health. UPSTREAM, a non-profit that sparks solutions to plastic pollution, is developing innovative programs and policies to help communities and businesses – like food operators – transition from single-use to reuse systems. One such solution is the Serve It Safe: Reusable Take-out pilot, a partnership between Dishcraft Robotics and UPSTREAM to provide a reusable take-out container delivery and washing service to select Bay Area restaurants.

We had the opportunity to talk with UPSTREAM’s Director of Business Innovation, Samantha Sommer, about the Serve It Safe pilot and other ways her group is helping the foodservice industry make the switch from disposable to reusable foodware in today’s COVID-era environment. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.


What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered as foodservice companies reopen during COVID-19?


In today’s environment, many restaurants, cafes, and cafeterias are being mandated to only offer takeout meals in single-use disposable containers. Some cities, in fact, put a ban on any reusables or BYO practices like bags and cups for fear of spreading COVID.

This is a major setback to reducing waste and plastic pollution since studies show that 67% of the trash on city streets is from food packaging and, as a result, many cities have been working hard for years to reduce the use of single-use packaging.

It’s critical the foodservice industry and consumers don’t lose momentum or reverse the progress being made. We have invested so much time and money into creating thoughtful zero-waste initiatives, and so many municipalities have passed regulations that mandate reducing waste on a large scale. It's going to be a long road to get back to where we were before COVID, when many people were focused on reducing waste. So we need to work together to find solutions to the new challenges this pandemic has created, especially as most, if not all, restaurants are able to offer take-out and delivery only.


How is UPSTREAM working to combat the “take-out” only challenge?


UPSTREAM is working with foodservice operators to help them safely and cost-effectively switch to reusable food ware and understand why it is particularly important right now. We want to help the world shift from one where we are creating tons of waste and plastic pollution to one where they are never created in the first place.

A vast amount of garbage that escapes into our environment includes single-use take-out cups, containers, and utensils we use for minutes or less. If we can help restaurants, cafes, and cafeterias eliminate those disposables, we can make a major dent in reducing waste and all the pollution associated with those products.

My role at UPSTREAM is to pilot and test reuse programs in all types of food landscapes; to work with governments, companies and school systems; and to build models that work to introduce reusables on a wide scale. In fact, one of the most exciting programs we’re working on is the Serve It Safe: Reusable Take-out pilot with Dishcraft, slated for the San Francisco Bay Area.


What is the Serve It Safe: Reusable Take-out pilot?


The Serve It Safe: Reusable Take-out pilot is a partnership to evaluate the feasibility and environmental and cost impacts of a daily delivery service for reusable food ware containers at local restaurants.

Each day, Dishcraft will deliver clean, sanitized reusable to-go containers to select restaurants that will use them to provide take-out meals to their customers (at no additional cost to the customer). Those customers return the used containers to one of the many collection locations scattered around town. Dishcraft then picks up the used containers and takes them back to their centralized dishwashing hub, where they are soaked, scrubbed, sanitized, inspected, and delivered back to the restaurant.

We are so excited to work with Dishcraft on this innovative program. Their reusable container delivery and washing service could help keep millions of single-use food ware items and thousands of tons of waste out of landfills and waterways over the long term.


In this COVID era, where safety is the #1 concern, is there validity in the belief that single-use food ware is safer than reusables?


The perception that single-use containers are more sanitary than reusables is not backed by facts, science, or data.

If you think about how many hands touch a disposable item during its lifecycle – from resource extraction, production, transport, stocking, and ultimately, to being served to the customer – it’s impossible to ensure single-use containers are clean. Meanwhile, there are so many regulations and public health inspections in place for washing and sanitizing reusables. And even though the most recent scientific research shows that COVID-19 does not readily spread via surfaces, reusables always meet higher sanitation standards than single-use items, hands down.

I talk to foodservice operators and businesses every day and they are still very much interested in reusables. A service like Dishcraft could help many restaurants, cafes, and cafeterias reopen safely, as they could outsource dishwashing of both dine-in and take-out dishware to a trusted operation with the highest level of regulations and sanitization.


Is compostable food ware another solution to reduce waste?


The short answer is no – compostable food ware is not the silver bullet folks were hoping for. If anything, compostable food ware is worsening the waste problem.

When we review the facts about the environmental impacts from these products, it seems more like a greenwashing scheme that ultimately is not better for the planet, people’s health, or a business’s bottom line. Substituting one single-use food ware for a supposedly “better” one does not disrupt the linear chain of pollution from taking, making, and wasting these products. They are still designed for only minutes of use and require significant end-of-life management from sorting, collection, and processing.

In addition, businesses end up spending more to procure compostable food ware, but the vast majority of these items – especially bioplastics – are not composted and so in some cases cause more harm than good. Many times, these items are sorted out and then go straight to the landfill. If they get tossed into recycling, it’s a contaminant that ruins a clean recycling stream; if they escape into the environment, studies show that bioplastics don’t breakdown faster, or even at all in some cases, when compared to petroleum-based food ware.

Unfortunately, many compostable paper products (containers, bowls, food wrap, etc.) are not any better, as the science shows they are almost always coated in harmful “toxic-forever” chemicals so they don’t get soggy with liquids. Long story short, there is no such thing as “better single-use food ware,” so the best and most sustainable solution for people, the planet and businesses is to lean into a reuse economy.


Why is reuse so important for restaurants, schools and corporate cafeterias that are reopening?


While COVID-19 presents new challenges for reusability in the food sector, new opportunities are also on the horizon. When following local public health and food safety guidelines for washing, the foodservice industry should be assured that reusables are safe and sanitary. 

There is still high demand for reuse systems, backed by decades of momentum and progress. Reuse has come too far and has too many allies to turn back now. We’ve changed the hearts and minds of businesses and people, and passed valuable policies, and the interest and engagement around reuse continue to grow.

Reuse creates jobs, streamlines operations, and significantly reduces waste and lifecycle pollution. Time and time again, businesses that have gone through food ware transitions with source reduction metrics prove that reuse saves money annually after meeting a quick return on investment.

At UPSTREAM, we are ideating and accelerating innovative business models, programs, and policies, all to help co-create a world that treats both people and the planet as indisposable. And I continue to be excited to hack reuse in challenging spaces with exciting new pilots and partners.

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