Reusable takeout container company set to expand again — this time into Guelph grocery stores
'Everyone is moving towards reusable packaging,' company co-founder Jacquie Hutchings says
While the federal government recently announced a ban on the manufacture and importation of single-use plastics over the next few years, a small Guelph, Ont.-based company has established itself as a leader in reusable plastic packaging for food service.
Friendlier.ca first launched their line of reusable takeout packages in a restaurant in November 2020, and have since expanded to 150 restaurants in Ontario.
On June 8, Friendlier announced a pilot program with four Zehrs grocery stores in Guelph which will offer reusable takeout containers at their home-meal replacement and deli counters in what the company hopes is a scaling-up of their sustainability reach.
Friendlier, headed up by Jacquie Hutchings and Kayli Dale, helps businesses move from single-use packaging to reusable packaging including coffee cup, beverage and takeout containers in several sizes.
Setting up the business was a goal Hutchings and Dale started when they were chemical engineering students at the University of Waterloo.
"We developed a passion for sustainability and wanted to put our efforts toward creating a business that could actually help the planet," Hutchings says.
Friendlier's process of shifting to reusable containers is designed to be trouble-free for both the grocery store, the restaurant and the customer.
How it works
As a grocery-store shopper at one of the four Guelph Zehrs, you simply ask for the food to be packed in Friendlier reusable containers for a 50-cent refundable deposit.
When people are finished with the food and container, they scan the QR code with their smartphone or visit Friendlier's website and type in the code. When the container is returned to a bin in a store or restaurant, people are refunded their deposit.
Food service operators purchase Friendlier containers like they would any other container and only have to ask if the shopper wants a reusable container with the 50-cent deposit.
The containers are Ontario-made polypropylene and manufactured using 24% less energy than conventional takeout containers, Hutchings said. Friendlier can provide sustainability data to food service operators about savings in greenhouse gas emissions and water use.
The containers are lightweight, stackable, easy to store and are microwave- and freezer-safe; they can be used up to 100 times.
Friendlier says it can also provide companies with a rich source of data in tracking where the containers have been purchased and where they have been returned.
"We can see where a container purchased at Zehrs was returned to Zehrs, or if it went from The Wooly Pub to Zehrs," Hutchings says.
Company scaled up quickly in first year
The purchase cost of the containers to the food operator is comparable to conventional disposable containers and less expensive than many "eco" alternatives.
Pickup and distribution of the packaging is done with the help of distributor partners. Friendlier collects the used containers, sanitizes them in an industrial cleaning facility, and inspects them.
Friendlier's navigation of a retail monolith like Loblaw Companies for the pilot project was done strategically: Hutchings says they started with small businesses and, with proof of concept established, convinced the national grocer to participate in the Guelph Zehrs pilot.
"We started working with independent restaurants and were able to scale rapidly over our first year of operation, so when we approached brands like Loblaws we were able to show them this actually works," she says.
As a free-use program, Friendlier says that customer loyalty — consumers who have bought food in the containers and will bring them back to stores to buy more — will build both their own business and that of the brands, like Zehrs and other food service, that offer the reusable containers.
"Sustainability and reducing waste is a huge focus for a lot of brands right now," Hutchings said. "Reusable containers sitting on their kitchen counter is a reminder for shoppers to go back to that store and get that food again."
If there has been a pinch point in their system, Hutchings says it's about consumer education and the familiarity and habit people have with conventional single-use packaging.
"We've spent a lot of time working on changing that behaviour and communicating with consumers," she says.
In some areas of the province, return rates on the containers are 50 to 60 per cent, although some of that can be calculated as people keeping the containers and using them at home.
However, where food service businesses advocate actively for the containers and educate their customers, Friendlier sees return rates as high as 85 to 95 per cent. Hutchings says that they have reused more than 120,000 containers and cups so far.
She adds that Friendlier is dedicated to providing sustainability options for the future of the planet but that they also want to secure financial stability in order to scale the company across Canada and elsewhere in the world.
To do that, they're betting on a cohort of motivated consumers who decline plastic straws at restaurants and bring their own bags to the grocery store along with food service operators who are dedicated to corporate goals for waste reduction.
"Everyone is moving towards reusable packaging," Hutchings said.