Our Clients in Environment

Sector: Environment

Earthware Reusables

The eco-friendly future of take out

As a self-described ‘serial entrepreneur,’ John MacInnes spent more than 20 years at the helm of several successful businesses in Calgary. But as he prepared to move on from his last venture – a software company focused on printing and copying – he wasn’t quite sure what would come next.

“I tried retiring,” he laughs. “It didn’t take because I wasn’t very good at it.”

It was the upheaval of the pandemic that brought him to abandon retirement and launch of Earthware Reusables.

Like many people at the time, MacInnes began ordering more take-out meals from restaurants, both for a sense of normalcy a restaurant-cooked meal offered, and to support the local businesses struggling with pandemic restrictions.

But as every dish arrived – each with its own array of disposable containers, cutlery and plastic packaging – MacInnes found himself wondering about the environmental impact these orders had.

“One of the people that was on one of our video calls told us about a reusable container service in San Francisco,” he says. “It was a great idea, and it just wouldn’t get out of my mind.”

So much as he’d done in the past, MacInnes set to work, researching ways to make the mountains of plastic and Styrofoam packaging used in the hospitality industry a thing of the past.

According to the company’s website there are 60,000 take-out orders every day in Calgary. And because each order includes multiple items, that means more than 240,000 single-use containers are used – and likely thrown away – in Calgary every single day.

He designed a pilot program to launch that summer, using reusable containers he’d ordered from the United States. Four Calgary restaurants enrolled in the pilot program, which would help MacInnes evaluate how to make the business of reusable containers a sustainable one.

The program tested four different models: one restaurant which replaced all of its containers with Earthware’s and sent them out into the world, and three which offered customers the option of using reusable containers with the option to pay extra fees of up to a dollar, to help cover the cost of the containers.
The problem was, the math didn’t add up.

Those first containers cost the company nearly $5 a piece. Restaurants were getting them for about $0.60 a piece. And consumers were getting the reusable containers for prices ranging from $1 to free.

And unfortunately, the attrition rate for the containers was high.

Put simply, people weren’t returning the reusable containers to be reused in the program. They were keeping them.

“So you can imagine that was a bit of a problem,” says MacInnes.

He continued to research similar programs around the world. He found most other reusable container programs either relied on a membership system, or on consumers paying a deposit up front and having it returned after they returned the container to the restaurant or a processing depot — a system not unlike what was already being done with bottle depots in Alberta.

MacInnes saw another opportunity.

“86% of beverage containers in Alberta get returned. So, great system that’s already existing, the great partnership,” he said.

“It was about finding out how to make that work, in a different way.”

As the number of restaurants interested in Earthware’s reusable container pilot program expanded from four to 50, the company continued to test out different membership options to find the one that would encourage the greatest return rate from customers.

But attrition rates remained high. People just weren’t returning the containers.

Fortunately, MacInnes had a plan. He sought out new, less-expensive containers, and researched ways to make the container return process as simple and easy as possible for consumers.

In 2023, he found a solution.

“We wanted a better container and also a better way to pick them up,” he said.

In addition to finding more cost-effective containers, Earthware reached an agreement with the Alberta Bottle Depot Association. The agreement meant consumers could now bring their used takeout containers back to the bottle depot when they return beverage containers.

Each container has a 30 cent deposit on it – included in the price when the customer orders their takeout meal. When they return the container to a depot, they get to pocket the change.

It’s a win-win-win – for the customer, for Earthware, and for the environment.

Today, about 30 restaurants in Calgary have signed on with Earthware’s reusable container program, but MacInnes has plans to expand across Alberta in the near future, supported by financing from SEF.

And he’s not stopping there.

“it’s not just Alberta,” he says. “We’ve got global ambitions for this.”

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