Styrofoam has bugged Crystal Dreisbach for years, particularly Styrofoam takeout boxes at restaurants. It’s no secret that Styrofoam—and expanded polystyrene in general— poses a threat to the environment and to human health, yet it’s the go-to material for meals to-go across the U.S. Now Dreisbach, a featured speaker at the Sullivan Foundation’s upcoming Ignite Retreat, is using the power of social entrepreneurship to help restaurateurs kick the Styrofoam habit—and she’s going after single-use plastic, too.
As the founder of GreenToGo in Durham, N.C., Dreisbach runs an app-based social-impact business that provides reusable takeout containers for local restaurants. Once customers download the app and buy a subscription, they can order carryout meals in reusable containers from any of GreenToGo’s 26 participating restaurants and grocery stores. After eating their meal, they can drop the containers off at various return stations around the city; GreenToGo staffers then retrieve the containers, wash and sanitize them at a central facility, and redistribute them to the restaurants.
“We design waste out of the picture and keep resources local,” Dreisbach said.
In Search of Sustainable Solutions
Dreisbach’s success as a social entrepreneur certainly didn’t happen overnight. She previously worked as a public health researcher and began considering the problem of Styrofoam 10 years ago. “My job was to make sure that research didn’t just end up sitting on a shelf but was evaluated, meta-analyzed and applied to people’s real lives,” Dreisbach said.
“One thing that always bothered me was Styrofoam takeout containers. We had more than enough research evidence to justify not using them, yet we were still using them! It gave me a level of cognitive dissonance that actually kept me up at night. As I started reading more about Styrofoam, I learned how bad it is for human health, the environment and the local economy. I thought, ‘There’s gotta be a better way!’ Even though I was super-busy at my job, I decided that one thing I could do was write letters to restaurants.”
Dreisbach penned around 200 letters over two years, urging restaurant owners to look into alternatives to polystyrene-based containers. “When one restaurant wrote back to tell me that my letter spurred them to action and making a change, I knew I wanted to take it to the next level.”
Her solution—a reusable takeout container service—didn’t immediately catch fire. “I talked and talked about this to anyone who would listen,” Dreisbach recalled. “Most people told me it wouldn’t work, and some people even laughed. But I submitted my idea to a contest in a magazine in 2010 and won runner-up!”
Feeling validated and motivated to keep working on her ideas to promote sustainability, Dreisbach in 2012 founded Don’t Waste Durham, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing consumer waste and encouraging sustainable practices. Durham’s own landfill has been closed for 25 years, so the city’s waste gets transported to another landfill in a different county. Anywhere between eight and 12 semitrucks make 200-mile round trips every weekday to haul off the garbage, with those trucks getting a measly 6 miles per gallon.
The only sustainable solution, Dreisbach realized, was to produce less trash—and Durham being a “foodie” town, reducing Styrofoam waste in restaurants was a good place to start. She worked closely with Durham County Health Department officials, business leaders and local citizens to fine-tune her idea for reusable food containers and, over time, won the backing of the community and the local restaurant industry.
To raise money, Dreisbach and her group of volunteers launched a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign in 2016. “When the campaign succeeded, we knew that the hardest part had only just begun,” she noted. “Yikes! We now had to actually design and implement the thing!”
To get community buy-in, she held public meetings at the Durham Co-Op Market and invited locals to contribute ideas for GreenToGo. “Everyone from city officials to taxi drivers to little old ladies were sitting in small groups designing each aspect of operations,” Dreisbach said. “What came out of these community meetings reflects how we run our business today.”
Promoting a Circular Economy
For all her success thus far, Dreisbach knows every service and product can be improved, hers included. GreenToGo’s containers, for example, are an off-the-shelf product also used in university dining halls, retirement communities and similar facilities around the country. “They are adequate for now,” she said, “but we know we can design and manufacture something better—containers that are designed specifically for a reuse system like ours, with superior durability and longevity, and made from safe, circular materials.”
The company is working with materials scientists and packaging designers to design a product “that will help advance the circular economy,” she said. “GreenToGo believes that, whenever we make something, our obligation, out of respect for the limited sources we have on Earth, is to design it right, make it the best quality it can be, and use it again and again.”
Meanwhile, through her nonprofit, Don’t Waste Durham, Dreisbach also has her sights set on reducing plastic waste in Durham and is inching closer to that goal. She and her team have spent more than seven years researching and crafting legislation that would require most local shoppers to pay a 10-cent fee on single-use bags (both plastic and paper) at retail stores and restaurants. The goal is to encourage consumers to shop with their own reusable bags, thus producing less trash for the region’s landfills.
The Don’t Waste Durham team cleared a major hurdle last month when the local Environmental Affairs Board approved the ordinance, clearing the way for the city council to vote on it. But Dreisbach is playing the long game to maximize the legislation’s chances of passage. “If we chose to, we could now push this ordinance directly to the city council for a vote, no matter how long it takes,” she said. “We opt instead for first vigorously engaging other key stakeholders. From our experience, this produces the most buy-in and the highest quality result.”
Dreisbach believes city leaders will ultimately pass the proposed ordinance. “I expect success given the level of support among local legislators—after all, I’ve been talking to them about this for 7 ½ years!” she said. “I have high hopes that the bill will become a law. And as evidenced around the country, our community will get accustomed to this new economic signal, and trash prevention will result.”
And after Durham, Dreisbach hopes to take her proposal statewide. “We now have towns and organizations across North Carolina contacting us about formalizing their support. We intend to create a coalition or network of towns and groups that can use our Fee for Bags Package—the draft ordinance, advocacy tools, relevant research and any of our lessons learned—to start the work in their own municipalities! We believe that the best way to scale ideas that are good for people, economy and planet is to open-source them!”