Why We’re So Excited About Returnable Containers 

Zingerman’s Delicatessen is a proud founding member of the Ann Arbor Reduce, Reuse, Return (A2R3) returnable container program. Returnable containers are available at Zingerman’s Deli in our Specialty Foods department and the Next Door Café, as well as for holiday menus from our Catering department. This program started in June of 2020 with a grant from the City of Ann Arbor’s A2Zero program and the Office of Sustainability and Innovations and is now led by the non-profit organization ZeroWaste.Org. (This isn’t the only sustainability movement happening in our community, check out this WXYZ Detroit video for more on this and other zero-waste efforts happening around town.)

Let’s Talk About Trash, Baby

In 2019, 55.7 million cubic yards of waste were added to landfills in Michigan. Together with other committed restaurants in our city, we have a goal of reducing that one takeout container at a time. Over its lifespan, one reusable takeout container can save up to 1,000 other types of takeout containers from entering our landfills, an important step towards achieving zero waste goals.

As our friends at ZeroWaste.Org explain, reusable food container programs “reduce waste and litter … reduce the toxic emissions associated with extraction, transportation, and manufacturing of single-use plastics, and deliver reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions.” Also, University of Michigan researchers have been studying this program and have concluded that “a reusable container system—as part of a circular economy strategy—offers the chance for significant benefits over time, if customers can be effectively educated to adopt sustainable behaviors.” The program is a clear win for Mother Earth, but ZeroWaste.Org adds that it can also offer “a better and healthier eating and drinking experience, create good local jobs, keep more money in the local economy.” Sounds pretty good, right?!

Don’t Stop Thinkin’ About Tomorrow

Rodger Bowser, our chef and one of our managing partners, says there are two main goals for the Deli’s participation in the returnable container program—reducing the amount of plastic waste we’re producing and helping to be a changemaker. When talking to RestaurantBusinessOnline.com he added, “We want to change the way people interact with restaurants and how they interact with their food and what they think about their interaction with to-go products. We wanted to be part of that change in our community, and we think our community is ready for it.”

Take Me Home Tonight

Try out Ann Arbor’s returnable container program in four simple steps:

  1. This zero-waste option is available in our Specialty Food grocery area and at our Next Door Café. So the next time you order bulk olives, sliced salami, or your favorite pastry, ask for a returnable container! If you’re ordering online, ask for a returnable container in the notes field at checkout. 
  2. Scan a QR code while you’re in the Deli and sign in! (This helps us keep track of who’s using the program.)
  3. Enjoy your food at home, then rinse the container with cold water. (Please don’t run it through your home dishwasher—we clean and sanitize them in our industrial dishwashers and if you also put them in your dishwasher at home, it negates the environmental benefits.)
  4. Return the container to one of our bus tubs, the box on our porch, or any participating Ann Arbor restaurant.

Never Gonna Give You Up

These containers are designed to be reused many times! The majority of containers in the program are produced in the United States, by OZZI, the leading closed recycling ecosystem and sustainability partner for responsible organizations and institutions. They’re made of highly durable polypropylene and are commercial dishwasher safe for 1,000 uses. They’re BPA-free, leak-resistant, microwave safe for reheating, and meet the stringent NSF Certification guidelines, so wherever you’re taking your take-out, you can feel confident that your food is safe and secure.

As we mentioned, currently, the returnable containers are available in our Specialty Foods grocery area and the Next Door Café. We are limiting our scope while we test out the containers to help us better understand the systems needed to make it work, but we are actively working to bring these containers to more areas of our business and the program is optimistic about expanding, too! 

Samuel McMullen, co-founder of ZeroWaste.Org, told the Michigan Daily that the next stage of the program will be to collect community input to learn what folks think about the returnable container project. ZeroWaste.Org is working with the City, Recycle Ann Arbor, and Perpetual (a national reuse nonprofit) to explore the possibility of setting up a larger-scale reuse system that could replace single-use food containers throughout Ann Arbor. Since we’ve been committed to this change from the start, we are super excited to figure out how to take it citywide!