New Edmonton start-up aims to introduce reusable takeout containers to local restaurants

Re:vita is a start-up looking to shake up takeout food orders by replacing single-use containers with reusable stainless steel options. The idea is to reduce plastic waste, that these students see worsening during the pandemic.

Some restaurants have expressed interest but are worried if consumers will buy in

Many restaurants have shifted to takeout and delivery options during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

A new sustainable takeout initiative created by three University of Alberta students is starting to draw some attention from local restaurants.

Re:vita is a start-up looking to shake up takeout food orders by replacing single-use containers with reusable stainless steel options. The idea is to reduce plastic waste, that these students see worsening during the pandemic.

Danielle Roy, a fourth-year political science and East Asian studies student, says she's sure many people struggle with conflicting feelings of wanting to act in a way that's environmentally friendly while supporting local businesses through the pandemic. She hopes Re:vita will be accepted by some of those people looking for an alternative.

"If we can take even a small percentage of that, that's already saving so much trash from the landfill," Roy said.

CBC Edmonton's Radio Active spoke with Roy on Friday along with her two co-founders, fourth-year fashion business management student Lucia Sanchesviesca and second-year strategic management student Owen Bonner. They originally worked together to pitch the idea at the World's Challenge Challenge business contest at the University of Alberta, before looking to develop it into a reality.

Ordering takeout or delivery through services like SkipTheDishes and UberEats has become far more popular during the pandemic. Dalhousie University's Agri-Food Analytics Lab estimated that in the first six months of the pandemic, 4.2 million more Canadians were ordering food online at least once a week than before the pandemic started.

Re:vita would work similarly to traditional food apps, but for an extra 99 cents, the restaurant would package meals in reusable containers.

The students' plan is that once customers are done with their meal, they can rinse the container and return it to restaurants themselves who will again clean the containers. Or customers can drop them in centralized bins where the Re:vita team can pick them up and distribute them to restaurants, renewing the cycle.

The team also envisions monthly subscriptions for curbside pickup from customers, and in the long term, private washing facilities.

Their app is still in the pilot stage with interest expressed by a few local restaurants, but the team is holding off on bringing the idea to more businesses until it's further developed.

Re:vita is a sustainable food delivery app currently being worked on by three University of Alberta students. (Submitted by Re:vita)

Suppli is a similar idea that already exists in Toronto, offering reusable takeout containers from participating restaurants, which are later dropped off to be rinsed and redistributed. But the team hopes to make Re:vita the first of its kind in western Canada.

Brian McBride, program manager of The Hallway Cafe and Takeaway inside city hall, said he likes the idea because it reduces a lot of waste.

"I know the composting program that the city has right now doesn't have the capacity to even take in some of the bioplastics we're using," McBride said. "So even though we're helping on how they're being made, they're still ending up in the landfill."

McBride said his business, like many restaurants, has had to change its service model during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, they didn't use any delivery system, but now this accounts for the majority of their sales.

Other restaurants worried about whether customers would pay extra for this service, or even be interested in the concept of doing their dishes after takeout.

"That's the whole idea of taking out, like 'I don't want to deal with dishes, I want something to throw away.' So I don't know if that would work," said Fred Saraya, owner of Capital Steak and Pizza.

Mariel Montero Sena, co-owner of Huma Mexican Comfort, worries some restaurants may not have dish-washing capacity for the service. She would want to see more information before signing up, to know how she could handle a big rush of orders, especially while short-staffed.

But she likes using sustainable materials when possible, and is worried about how much waste is accumulating during the pandemic.

"For me, it's a little bit hard to really decide if it's something that's going to be good or we could control it," Huma said. "I think it's a great idea, but can we control it? Can we handle it? ... Because we're very short-staffed right now."

The Re:vita team surveyed around 150 Edmontonians about the idea, and found the main public concerns to be high delivery service fees and hygiene.

"People are actually really concerned with how clean their containers are going to be when they receive them," Sanchesviesca said.

"But I think here the important thing is to see it in a different light. When you go to a restaurant, when you dine in, you already use restaurant plates, their glasses, their cutlery and it's no different than what we're doing except we're just delivering it to your house."

Another obstacle for the team is funding, as they estimate delivery apps can cost between $40,000 and $60,000 to create.

In the meantime, the team is still meeting with restaurants, raising money and learning how best to implement the service.