Sustainable Business; Reusable Containers

customers own containers

I had intended to publish a series of sustainable business articles just as the Coronavirus hit, but felt it would be insensitive when so businesses are struggling to hold on. Now that we have a roadmap for emerging out of lockdown I’ve taken the view that it’s okay to start talking about the future in more concrete terms. I do so knowing that some business owners are coming to the painful realisation that they won’t be reopening their doors. My heart breaks for them. I’ve been there.

To anyone facing the closure of their business, now or at any time, be proud. You stuck your neck out, you dared; something many never do. Things were against you this time but if you actually liked the day to day of running your own business, don’t give up.  Once the bruises and scrapes have healed, take stock, count your blessings and strike out on a new journey.

In the interim here is the first in a series of articles on ways to do business better, starting with facilitating customers own containers.

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Photo by Matilda bellman on Unsplash

Customer’s Own Containers
When it comes to customers’ own cups in Ireland we’ve come quite a long way. Thanks in part to the stellar work by the Conscious Cup Campaign.  Most places now take customer’s own cups, and you should too. Better still give a discount to people who use reusable cups and get listed on the map of Conscious Cafes.

Reusable containers for food is another issue. Before I start let me address the whole issue of health and safety and customer’s own containers. I’ve looked at the legislation and no where could I find text that precluded a store from offering the option of customer’s own containers. That said there is some very negative guidelines on the Food Safety Authority website, which I think do little to help us move towards sustainable living in Ireland.

Here are my thoughts on this issue. On a practical level there are two areas to consider; 1) possible contamination of food purchase in a customers own container and 2) possible contamination of the store and the risk to the health of other customers.

Let’s look at the first issue; Is this really a new risk? If I purchase a package of sausages or a takeaway lunch from a business and leave either on the dashboard of my car on a sunny day and then consume them the following day is the store liable for the food poisoning? In my mind as soon as food leaves the premises the cold chain is broken and therefore I don’t see how a business is responsible for the safety of the goods consumed. That said I’m not a lawyer and I do wish government agencies would give helpful guidance to businesses wanting to become more sustainable.

Regarding the second issue I think there are procedures that can safely manage any cross-contamination risks that might arise. Here are a few options I’ve thought of;

  • If customers are getting meat or deli goods staff could weigh the meat in a reusable container on the staff side of the counter and then transfer it into the customers own container, which sits on top of the screen guard using reusable utensils. If the utensil hits off the customer’s container it can be put aside for washing.
  • Alternatively customers could be invited to put their containers onto a clean stainless steel tray, which the staff member then places onto their scales, TARES (sets to zero), and then fills with the requested item. Once filled the staff member lifts up the tray for the customer to lift off and puts their lid on. At no time does the staff member touch the container, only the tray, which ideally should be something that can be sterilised at the end of the day. It would probably best to decline glass containers for fear of breakages if using this method.

Just in case you’re concerned about the coronavirus and customers own containers here’s a very useful, and well researched, sheet of FAQs from the Food Packaging Forum in the US.

Deposit Return Schemes
We currently only have deposit return schemes for reusable cups in Ireland but I’m hopeful we’ll get one for food soon enough.

They work by allowing customers to ‘borrow’ a cup in return for a deposit, which they can get returned at any of the businesses participating in the scheme. Two deposit / return schemes operating in Ireland is 2gocup and ReturnR

Just in case there’s any confusion I’m not talking about deposit return schemes for single-use containers here. I’ve written a lengthy article on why I think they’re a complete white elephant ecologically speaking

Compostable Containers
If facilitating the reuse of customer’s own containers is not an option for you then there are some suppliers of compostable food packaging to consider. I’m not a fan of compostable items if they’re avoidable because they’re single-use, they release the greenhouse gas methane when they compost, and we lose the energy and material that goes into making them when they’re disposed of. But if you need them, you need them, so here’s a few suppliers for you. Just remember to provide signage explaining which bin the containers are to go into

I recently came across an interesting venture by KFC in the Middle East. They’ve switched out their traditional receipts, tray inserts and packaging for biodegradable napkins.

Take care, stay safe


Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

2 thoughts on “Sustainable Business; Reusable Containers

  1. I think discounts would be a great way to incentivize consumers to get their own cups and vessels. I understand the various health issues you’ve pointed out (never even occurred to me till I read this!) but as you mention, with some small precautions they can be avoided.

    A challenge I foresee with this model in India would be social perceptions. People don’t consider it “cool” to be using reusable containers or cups in places like Starbucks. It could prevent the well-off people (who are probably guilty of most of the plastic waste in the country) from taking this model up. The cost incentive would not work on them as they can afford to pay the actual price for any food/drink they purchase. It would require some very shrewd behavioral signalling to get them on board.

    Great post, Elaine!


    1. Thanks for the comment Saurab. Interestingly some research found that penalties worked better than discounts.

      In Ireland it’s becoming increasingly uncool to use disposable coffee-cups, with the middle-classes mostly leading the way with reusables. I’m always fascinated by the power of social norms to bring about change.



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