Last year, in a press release announcing its 20th anniversary, Seamless boasted that it delivered takeout to millions of New Yorkers each year. You are probably one of them; I certainly am.
What it doesn’t mention is the number of takeout containers each one of those orders produced, and how many of them wind up as waste. Given New York’s notoriously low recycling rate, as well as the limitations of recycling itself, a ton of takeout ware still finds its way to landfills or the ocean.
So, to enjoy the convenience of takeout without the nagging guilt, a local service called DeliverZero guarantees that the container your meal comes in will be returned for reuse. It launched last year and is currently available at 8 restaurants in Park Slope and Prospect Heights, with more joining the service soon in Clinton Hill and Williamsburg. There is no extra charge for your curries, bowls and tacos to go, though you will get dinged if you don’t return your food safe, BPA-free containers within 6 weeks. You just give it back to the delivery person the next time you get takeout, and the container will be washed and sanitized before it arrives in another DeliverZero order.
Already it has cultivated an avid following within its current delivery range. Jenny Cooper says a friend emailed her about the service and she ordered that night. As the owner of the “less waste” coffee shop IXV Coffee, she was already conscious of being as zero waste as possible.
“I avoided takeout in general, because it creates so much waste,” she explained. “Black plastic is not read by the optical machines in recycling plants and restaurants tend to give you so much plastic cutlery and extra sauces,” she reasoned, but DeliverZero offered an eco way to order in. “I didn’t need to feel bad or guilty about the trash created. Because there was none!”
New York City’s recycling plant in Sunset Park—the largest recycling facility in the U.S.—does contain 16 optical sorters that can correctly identify any type of plastic, regardless of color Zero Waste NYC workshop . But the black belt that conveys our recyclables makes it difficult for the sorters to “see” the black containers, the kind used for most takeout, so many of these are missed and wind up as waste. Another reason why a takeout container might be tossed instead of recycled is that food residue also makes it difficult for the optical sorters to identify it as recyclable. (So rinse them before you recycle!)
This uncertainty of what is and isn’t actually recycled, along with the energy it requires, is what inspired DeliverZero co-founder Adam Farbiarz to dream up the service. “I love recycling, but I kind of don’t believe in it,” he said. “The pain of getting takeout and getting all that junk is just unbearable.” To put a number on the amount of containers and plastic utensils that New Yorkers throw away each year, DeliverZero used a mix of public and proprietary data to calculate that New Yorkers throw away nearly a billion pieces of single-use plastic takeout ware a year. (And that’s a conservative estimate.)
Together with Farbiarz’s two co-founders, Byron Sorrells and Lauren Sweeney, DeliverZero is attempting to clean up our takeout habit, while working within the constraints of a self-funded startup. The restaurants they can currently sign on must have their own delivery people and a dishwasher to clean the containers. They don’t yet have a solution for the single-use plastic bags some restaurants use, nor sauce containers (though you could ask the restaurant not to include any). But, says Sweeney, “The more we’re able to grow, the more we’re able to do.”
Other zero-waste takeout services served as an inspiration, says Farbiarz, like the Indian Tiffin box system and the Go Box in Portland, Oregon, a subscription service with city-wide bins to collect the reusable containers and then return them to participating restaurants and supermarkets, washed and ready for reuse.
But Farbiarz also notes another, older model of sustainable takeout in New York.
“Most people don’t realize it, but the original form of takeout was, you were a lonely old bachelor and you didn’t know how to cook, and you would go to an old lady in your building who would give you a pot of food, and when you were done, you would bring it back.”
The term for this woman was an “Old Stove,” not exactly a compliment to the chef. But given the rise of food delivery, the concept is due for a comeback.
“That is the origin of takeout food,” says Farbiarz. “It seems so civilized and classy, so why can’t we get back to that?”