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Martha's Vineyard program aims to reduce takeout container waste with reusable bowls

Island Eats bowl.JPG
Island Eats MV
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The vast majority of restaurant takeout containers end up in landfills or worse, as litter.

A Martha's Vineyard woman is hoping to cut down on these single-use containers with a program that links customers to restaurants offering food in reusable bowls.

Island Eats MV will run as a pilot program featuring five local restaurants and a cap of 120 customers this summer.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with founder Jessica Mason to learn more about what she hopes to accomplish.

Eident Walk me through how this works; I’ve signed up for the program as a customer and I want to get takeout from one of the restaurants that’s participating.

Mason When you join Island Eats, it's a little bit like a gym membership. You're joining up for four months participation in the program and access to the reusable stainless-steel bowls. So, you join, and you will receive a token. It's a physical card, and that card entitles you to access to sustainable reusable bowls at any of the participating restaurants.

So, when you place your order in person, online, or over the phone, you say that you'd like to receive your order in an Island Eats bowl. When you go to the restaurant to pick up your takeout, you're going to exchange your token for your order in the bowl. You go off, you enjoy that takeout wherever you'd like.
When you're done, you return the bowl to any of the participating restaurants. And it doesn't have to be the same one where you picked up. And in return for the exchange of the bowl, you get a token back that enables you to go on to the next restaurant or to the same restaurant and get your next order, again served in these reusable bowls.

Behind the scenes, Island Eats is picking up the bowls that have been used and transporting them to a commercial washing and sanitization facility, and then we redistribute them to the restaurants.

Eident What motivated the restaurant partners that you found to get involved with a program like this? Because not all food comes in bowls.

Mason You know, most of our restaurant partners were folks who had heard about the program and were on board from day one. We had a lot of responses from people who said, "I don't really understand what this is, and I don't really understand how it works, but we want to be a part of it." So, many of our partners really bought in without having a full sense of the program, which is incredible, and I think really speaks to their commitment to sustainability.

And, to your question about not all food coming in bowls, that's true. And one of the things we wanted to do was find a container that was almost universal. In the pilot program, we're using a single size bowl.

In the future, we could introduce cups, we could introduce soup bowls, we could introduce pints for ice cream and, you know, boxes for pizza. So many different things. But for the pilot, we're really focused on this single size bowl to simplify operations and make sure that we can deliver what we're promising both to the restaurants and the customers. And most of our restaurants are really committed to finding ways to fit their existing food into the bowls.

And we're being really clear on our side to explain to folks that this is a pilot and not everything is going to work perfectly in every moment. But we, along with the restaurants, are doing the best we can to help these customers make a more sustainable choice.

Eident Where did you come up with the idea for something like this and how long did it take to develop? Because there are a lot of moving parts.

Mason There are so many moving parts. So, in my day job, I run a national nonprofit that's focused on growing cooperative businesses. In one of our prior classes, we had a business who was doing this on the West Coast, and I was really inspired by the entrepreneur leading that effort. I couldn't get the idea that we had a solution to single use out of my head.

And, summer rolled around and I was walking in some of our towns and seeing trash overflowing the bins and seeing particularly just single use plastic containers everywhere. And I thought to myself, we have this challenge. We don't want this to be impacting our island in this way. And there's actually a solution is being deployed elsewhere, both in the U.S. and also around the world.

After a while, I said, you know what, I'm going to start this, and it's become my nights and weekends passion, if you will, and a project that I want to launch here, not alone, but with the community.

Eident How do you get funding for something like this?

Mason Them and the funding for the business, currently it's been self-funded, although I am accepting charitable donations and we are raising a certain amount of money to cover the cost of the pilot and we've raised 45% of those funds to date and I'm optimistic we'll be able to close out that fundraising in the next couple of weeks.

I'm obviously donating my time and effort, but to your point, there are costs that are sort of part of this. It's not only purchasing the bowls and the lids, obviously, that come with them. There are so many small costs associated with starting a business. And those are the costs that we are hoping to cover with the charitable donations.

What I would like to do, post pilot is convert the LLC that we are now into a restaurant-owned cooperative. That means that it will be owned by the restaurants who participate. They will have both a governance right as well as a financial right, which means should the business be profitable, they will share in the profits. And that's my goal. I think the best way to build a business is to build it with community and for community.

The restaurants are the ones who are really taking the risk to be a part of this and making the biggest step to make a sustainable choice. And I want to reward them with that and create something that's more sustainable within our community.

Eident Well. Jessica Mason of Island Eats, thank you so much.

Mason Thanks so much. I really a

This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.