Championing Reuse Over Single Use with GO Box’s Laura Weiss

September 15, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so excited to have with us today Laura Weiss. She’s the owner and founder of GO Box and you can check them out at GOBoxPDX.com. Welcome to Green is Good, Laura. LAURA WEISS: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Laura, before we get talking about your unique company and products, I would love you please to share with our listeners the Laura Weiss story. Give a little bit about your story and journey leading up to being the founder of Go Box. LAURA WEISS: Well, let’s see. It’s been about three years since I launched GO Box, but I actually have spent most of my career doing environmental policy and advocacy for nonprofit and government organizations. I actually grew up in New Jersey, but I now make my home in Portland and I have always loved the food carts, but being an environmentally minded person, I hated using all those disposable containers and so when I had the idea for GO Box, it all sort of lined up and I decided to launch it and it’s actually the first time I’ve ever owned a business, so I’ve been learning quite a bit about running a business, but it’s been really fun. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you went from public work and public advocacy to basically private business? LAURA WEISS: I did. I have, like I said, a background in environmental policy and advocacy but I also got my M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Cambridge Graduate Institute back in 2006, and at that point, I knew that I wanted to do something a little bit different and I knew I wanted to try working in the private sector since I had worked both nonprofit and public sectors with the idea, of course, that there’s more and more interest in sustainable business and business doing good in the world and that was sort of what led me into the idea of running a business, and of course, GO Box is a very mission-driven business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, you’re doing all this work for 25 years in environmental sustainability, so you get to see a lot of things and trends come and go and media outrage come and go. What was your epiphany, or your aha moment, to make you want to found GO Box? LAURA WEISS: Well, I would say, like I said, I have always been someone who very much dislikes using something once and throwing it away. We live in a very throwaway society and people don’t necessarily pay attention to all the things that we use in our daily lives and where they came from and how much energy and resources it took to get those products to us and then, of course, the process of throwing them away and I remember learning a long time ago when I was very young that there is no such thing as “away” because it all goes somewhere. It may go away from our sight, but it’s never going away so it all sort of lined up to be something that was consistent with my values and my interest and it also made sense to me because Portland is a very environmentally minded city and we are also very well known for our food carts and I know that there are lots of folks who love the food carts but they don’t love those disposable clamshells. We don’t get our food in a disposable container because we love the disposable container. It’s just the only option. We want our food and we take it back to our office or our park or wherever, and this gives people another option. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, the truth is in every city now, the food truck has taken off; in Manhattan, Los Angeles and all across America besides Portland, so your solution might be really coast to coast very shortly. Let’s talk about GO Box. For our listeners out there that want to follow along as we have this wonderful discussion and they want to see your product, they can go to GOBoxPDX.com. I’m on your website right now. It’s very colorful. It’s very informative. Just explain to our listeners out there though. Give us the basic premise. What is GO Box? LAURA WEISS: Absolutely. So, GO Box is a service providing reusable takeout containers to the food carts and their customers, and I’ll say actually that we offering it to other takeout places that aren’t food carts as well and we can talk about that, so what happens is if somebody wants to use GO Box, they sign up or subscribe to GO Box. They pay just $18 for the whole year. They get in the mail a hard plastic reusable clamshell and when they’re done, they return it to a nearby drop site in exchange for a little GO Box token that’s a rectangular plastic piece that fits in your wallet — recycled plastic, of course — and you keep that in your wallet until you’re ready for your next meal in a GO Box. Then you hand that to the vendor. That’s their signal to give you your next meal in a GO Box and then you do it all over again and then we pick up the used containers. We have them washed in a commercial kitchen and then we return them clean to the vendors and then we do that all by bicycle. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is amazing. Now, you started this business in Portland, where you live now? LAURA WEISS: I did. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, is this only right now ongoing in Portland? LAURA WEISS: Almost, but not quite. We have actually expanded just a little bit right now on the West Coast, so there is a GO Box Sacramento, and what I did was I decided that it made sense to license GO Box to folks in other cities, so GO Box Sacramento is up and running and they just started this year. And, then there is a colleague of mine in San Francisco who is planning to launch GO Box San Francisco later this year at some point. He’s in the process of kind of putting together a pilot to kind of get the kinks worked out because, of course, every market’s a little bit different and every city is different and it’s a very local kind of business, so that’s very exciting. And, I’m in conversations with folks in other cities and I would love to talk to folks in places all over the country because this model can definitely be replicated. I’ve learned a lot by doing it here that I think can be valuable to folks in other places. I’ll also just mention that although we started with food carts and food carts are a great option, it also works for any downtown core where there’s a lot of takeout places. That’s really where GO Box works the best. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Sure. So, this will be coming to New York City in the near future? It just has to be. LAURA WEISS: I hope so. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about it. Let’s deconstruct it as a business; so let’s talk about how you did it though. How did you invent the GO Box itself and what is it made out of? Let’s start there and then I’ll want to talk about then the value chain from there, so go ahead. How did you invent this GO Box and what is it made out of? LAURA WEISS: Well, the good news is for me was I didn’t have to invent the GO Box. I actually in my work history spent a little bit of time working for a large foodservice company and what I learned when I was there was that there already is reusable containers that are made by another company and they’re made by a company out of Houston, Texas, and they were made originally for this very market, this foodservice market, so for example, at colleges and universities, they use these same boxes to try and reduce disposable containers on campuses, but what had not been done was to use them in this kind of setting where I’m using them, so I simply purchased these containers from this company. So, they’re hard plastic. They are made of #5 polypropylene BPA-free plastic. They are shaped and sized just like a regular takeout container would be, and I have three sizes that I use here in Portland and they’re dishwasher-safe. They can be put in the microwave if you’re okay microwaving plastic. That’s a whole nother conversation, but they’re technically microwave-safe and they can be used over and over again. The manufacturer says they can be used about 500 times per container, which is great, and then if I take them out of service, I do recycle them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and so now you’re in Portland, which is already a sustainably minded city. You yourself have 25 years of environmentalism and sustainability under your belt, so now as a new entrepreneur — because this is always the fun part, Laura — as a new entrepreneur, you started connecting the dots. You knew about this wonderful plastic food container, but how did you come up with the methodology? How did you connect the dots and you said I’m gonna create a token, I’m gonna present this to the fast-food vendors, and who did you approach first? Which vendors did you approach? Did you approach restaurants themselves, like you said, small restaurants that were doing lots of takeout in downtown areas, high volume, or did you approach the food trucks first and how did that go? How did those first conversations really go? LAURA WEISS: Yeah, I also started doing a pilot, and it’s always good to try out something like this because it was a new idea. It hadn’t been done before, and so I did start with food carts. That was the idea was to focus on the downtown food carts. We have well over 100 food carts just in downtown Portland. There’s 500 around the city, but I was just focused on the downtown core and I approached three of them that I had always been a customer of, so they knew my face and then I told them about this crazy idea I had and they were willing to give it a try and then of course, I reached out to my networks of people looking for customers to kind of pilot it. And, then the drop-box part, that was an interesting process because in the beginning, I had this idea that there would be this kind of reverse vending machine that would take back your container and spit out a token and I spent some time and money trying to develop that and then realized that that was really not a good idea for a whole number of reasons, but what I came up with instead was a much, I think, better idea, which is I approached some local businesses and we set up these nice-looking bamboo drop boxes lined with nylon bags where people could return their containers and a business like a health club or a gym or a bike shop could hand out the tokens to the individual subscribers to return their box, and then we added to that. After launching, we realized we had an opportunity to help businesses and buildings in downtown Portland be greener by offering them their own private drop box, and so now we have nearly 30 companies or buildings that have their own private drop box for their employees or tenants, and so it’s super convenient for people who work there to be able to return their container and then we pick up the used containers and take them to be washed. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s keep walking the entrepreneur journey, so how many food carts today have signed up for the drop box? LAURA WEISS: Yeah. Today we have about 75 vendors that are offering GO Box. Most of them are food carts, but like I said, we have a number of takeout restaurants in downtown, salad bars and other places where people go to get takeout food that are brick-and-mortar restaurants or brick-and-mortar takeout places. We’re approaching 2,000 subscribers that signed up to use GO Box, and we have eliminated the use of about 50,000 disposable containers since launch. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Just to date? LAURA WEISS: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. For our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Laura Weiss on. She’s the owner and founder and the ecopreneur behind GO Box. You can check out more of what Laura’s doing or sign up for GO Box or get your restaurant or food cart involved at GOBoxPDX.com. So, now is the moment of truth, Laura. If you and I are walking into a meeting together and we’re competing against each other and you’ve got this wonderful product, GO Box, that’s revolutionizing how people take out their food, enjoy it, and don’t create extra waste, but I own the #1 compostable container company. When you’re pitching the product versus mine to the next food cart or food vendor, why GO Box instead of a compostable container? LAURA WEISS: That’s an excellent question. Here in Portland, the city banned Styrofoam about 20 years ago, so there’s a lot of vendors that are using compostable containers and the most interesting thing about that is that here in Portland, come next year, the city and the county and the whole area is going to be prohibiting compostable containers in the compost, so this whole idea that compostable containers are good for the environment is, I think, slowly but surely starting to have some issues and the reason, from talking to folks at the city, what’s happening is that from all of this compostable serviceware that’s going into compost, it’s kind of overwhelming the system and the compost facilities are not designed to really deal with them the way they need to be dealt with in terms of the amount of time they take to compost. And, so in addition, the idea behind compost is to create something to put back in the soil that adds value to the soil and most of this compostable serviceware really doesn’t add very much nutritive value to the soil and so it’s getting to the point where these composting facilities are saying there’s a little too much of this material and it’s not working in our systems and it’s not helping and then — go ahead. JOHN SHEGERIAN: No, you go ahead. This is fascinating. I’ve never heard this. LAURA WEISS: In addition to that, it turns out that even despite that, most compostable serviceware ends up in the trash because a lot of places people don’t have the ability to compost these things and when the compostable serviceware ends up in the trash, the question is what is the environmental benefit of that? Because again, looking upstream at what it takes to create those compostable containers, it takes a lot of energy and resources and they’re still single use, and so this is the idea that reuse is better than single use, even if the single use is compostable and so using something over and over again is gonna be better for the environment in general as long as it gets used a certain number of times. Now, of course it takes resources and energy to create the GO Boxes. In fact, the manufacturer did a life cycle assessment of it and said that after 25 to 35 uses, the amount of energy and carbon footprint of these GO Boxes is less than that many Styrofoam containers, so it can get complicated pretty quick, but again, the bottom line is I would argue that reuse is better than single use. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s fascinating, and we’re down, unfortunately, to the last three minutes or so, but you know, as an entrepreneur now, Laura, you’ve got now in front of you with compostable containers now going to be outlawed soon, and soon the consumer is going to be educating that it shouldn’t be going back to composting and just food should be going into composting, not the containers, the GO Box is gonna be the go-to box, so help me understand this. In terms of your long-term goals, almost every restaurant, food cart, food truck, fast-food place that has containers in America, this is a massive opportunity for your business venture. LAURA WEISS: Well, I sure hope so. I will add that, yes, you’re right. It is great that food is being composted and I do hope that we can compost more in this country and yeah, I would love to see the GO Box model replicated all over the country because it’ll help reduce all that waste and I think that consumers from New York to San Francisco are gonna be interested in this idea and this option when they get their food to go. The trick for us is just managing all the systems and the back-end work that goes into the business itself, but we’re hoping we can expand all over the United States and beyond if possible. It takes some time. It’s still a small business, but there’s lots of opportunity for sure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Lots of opportunity and also lots of diversion that can be done from these wasteful containers just going into the waste stream. LAURA WEISS: Yep. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well Lauren, we thank you so much for coming on today. For our listeners out there who want to contact Laura and sign up for GO Box or license the GO Box from her and create a franchise in their city, you can go to www.goboxpdx.com. Thank you, Laura, for being an inspiring environmental sustainability leader and ecopreneur. You are truly living proof that green is good.