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Earthware boosts return rate for reusable food containers

Higher deposit boosts returns to 24 per cent; company plans to expand into Edmonton

Earthware's reusable bowls encourage customers to return the containers by offering a deposit. (Courtesy Earthware)

Earthware, a Calgary-based company offering a food container reuse program for restaurants and food preparation services, has boosted its return rate and plans to expand into the Edmonton region.

The company, founded by entrepreneur John MacInnes, sells its line of reusable take-out bowls and boxes to businesses, which charge customers a small deposit per container. If returned at eligible locations such as bottle depots, the customer receives 50 cents. Earthware then washes the containers so they can be reused.

Almost 140,000 of the recyclable plastic containers, which can be washed and reused between 50 to 70 times, have been sold by Earthware to date. The company has reused over 56,600 containers and lids, saving over 29 tonnes of carbon dioxide, approximately 53,000 litres of water and close to two-and-a-half skating rink surfaces of landfill space, according to MacInnes.

A major issue faced by the company was a paltry return rate of two to four per cent, MacInnes said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada. By increasing the deposit, its return rate jumped to approximately 24 per cent, while still maintaining a profit.

“It’s going to take years, there’s no doubt,” he said about reaching Earthware’s ideal return rate, “but we will definitely get there.”

After experiencing significant growth in Calgary, Edmonton is the next target for the company. Fundraising is under way to support the expansion.

Incentivizing returns

The challenge of getting the containers returned is not new to Earthware. Founded in 2021 as a solution to the mounds of plastic waste thrown away from take-out meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, it initially operated on a membership model for consumers who could request an Earthware container when they ordered from participating restaurants.

But few people returned the containers, defeating the purpose of Earthware. MacInnes aims to reach an 84 per cent return rate, which is what the Alberta Bottle Depot Association accomplishes for returnable aluminum, plastic and glass bottles and containers in a similar program.

In January 2024, Earthware opted to boost its deposit charge from 10 cents to 50 cents, which resulted in “a fairly significant increase in return rates,” he said. Customers are also informed about the return policy through labelling on the containers.

As each container is sold to restaurants for 80 cents, Earthware still makes a return despite upping the deposit, he explained.

Though some of Earthware's potential clients have expressed worries a deposit-based system would turn off customers, MacInnes said the company has seen the opposite reaction from many consumers.

“There isn’t a pushback from the consumer at all,” MacInnes said. “It’s been accepted out in the world very nicely, and people like the idea . . . A lot of people are choosing restaurants because they use Earthware.”

Delivery consumers interested in Earthware tend to be interested in environmental issues - and be higher wage earners, he added.

Plans for Edmonton expansion

Since 2023, Earthware has seen its business swell 700 per cent, according to MacInnes, driven largely by its partnership with the Alberta Bottle Depot Association.

Its plan for expansion is to progress along the association's depots and the communities which dot the Highway 2 corridor, the main north-south route connecting Calgary to Edmonton.

Interest from businesses in Edmonton has been brisk. “I bet you once a week we get people emailing us or asking us when we’re coming,” he said.

A deal with food distributor Gordon Food Service has been forged as part of its strategy for Edmonton.

The expansion will happen when the company raises enough funding and stabilizes its sales cycle in Calgary. The funding target is $1.2 million, and so far, it has $1 million in commitments from investors which include the Alberta Bottle Depot Association and venture capital firms such as Edmonton-based ScaleGood.

MacInnes anticipates reaching its funding goal by the end of April. 

Adding more to its container repertoire

By June, McInnes hopes to see Earthware offer six new products: two sizes of deli containers and four sizes of square containers.

He's also looking at a number of other innovations - including sourcing a reusable roast chicken container, the kind used by the likes of Costco or Loblaws. “Those containers are just such a huge waste and they tend to go in the garbage,” MacInnes said.

Another avenue Earthware is exploring is reusable windshield wiper bottles. MacInnes envisions Earthware refilling the bottles with fresh fluid and reselling it as their own product.

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