About 1,200 local subscribers take their food to go, sustainably

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Founder and owner of GO Box Laura Weiss passes clean containers to Matthew Johnson at the Korean Twist food cart on Southwest Fifth Avenue.Garrett Downen works in Old Town, a few blocks from a food cart pod in downtown Portland. At lunchtime, he likes to grab his food in a hurry and bring it back to his office. But he hates having to throw away the disposable containers.

That’s why six months ago he subscribed to GO Box — to cut back on Portland’s waste.

GO Box, founded by Laura Weiss, allows customers to pay for reusable containers that can be filled at select food carts and cafes. Six months in, the business is showing remarkable growth.

Customers sign up at the participating businesses for $12 a year and immediately receive their first GO Box. Once they finish eating, they drop off their box to be cleaned at one of five downtown drop sites. In exchange, they get a token that can be swapped for another reusable container.

“I’ve always loved the food carts, but I’ve always hated the waste,” Weiss says.

Weiss was a regular food cart customer who tried to bring in her own reusable containers only to find county health regulations don’t allow that.

The idea for GO Box came to her in 2010 when Weiss learned more about food containers while at Aramark, a food-service company.

GO Box containers are made of No. 5 polypropylene and bisphenol A (BPA)-free plastic. They’re dishwasher and microwavable, but Weiss still advises people to avoid microwaving food in plastic containers.

Costing about $4 each, the containers are manufactured in Houston and used by other companies and colleges around the nation.

Weiss has masters degrees in public health and business administration. GO Box is the first business she’s created.

“I felt I was at the right place at the right time,” Weiss says. “If it was going to work anywhere, it’d work in Portland.”

Getting rid of waste

When Weiss launched GO Boxes in July, five food cart owners participated in the venture. Now there are about 1,200 individual subscribers and 13 corporations that pay monthly fees to have GO Box drop sites in their offices. In addition, more than 50 food carts and cafes use GO Boxes.

Weiss estimates that GO Box use has kept 15,000 disposable containers out of landfills. The city of Portland honored Weiss’ GO Boxes last year with an award for sustainable business practices.

Weiss is carrying the sustainability about as far as she can. She and a half-time employee pick up locally made bags of GO Box containers in shipping boxes made locally from bamboo. The drop sites are inside businesses of GO Box partners, such as the West Side Athletic Club.

Used containers are dropped off at one of the multiple restaurants and commercial kitchens that wash the boxes for a fee. After they’re cleaned, they are returned to the food cart owners to repeat the process. Weiss does this all on her bike with a cart attached to the back that can hold the boxes.

Missi Clements, a manager at The Original restaurant downtown, for instance, washes 30 to 40 containers a day. Clements also is a GO Box subscriber.

“They get rid of a ton of waste,” she says.

Weiss also is creating partnerships with her new corporate program, which allows companies or buildings to pay for drop boxes at their sites. This encourages employees to take out food from GO box carts, knowing they can leave their container at the office.

“We’re always interested in doing whatever we can to further any sustainability initiative,” says Hugh Donnelly, director of administrations and facilities at Mercy Corps, one of the organizations signed up with GO Box.

Mercy Corps decided to pay for a drop box after Weiss made a presentation there. About 30 of the nonprofit’s 200 employees have so far signed up for the service.

“We try to think of every different way, without spending too much money, to be a part of this sustainability revolution,” Donnelly said. “It’s sustainable through and through.”

Expansion and technology

Weiss’ business has come a long way since she came up with the GO Box idea. Originally, she planned to have a machine that could take used containers and give customers tokens in return. But developing the dispenser was too expensive.

Instead, the five downtown drop box sites are maintained by businesses that voluntarily have front-office staff hand tokens to people who have dropped off dirty containers.

Starting GO Box has been a learning process, Weiss says. Because she had no business model to follow, she’s been testing the waters with changes and ideas. She plans to raise prices again for subscriptions in the future, but doesn’t want to overcharge customers.

“It’s not like a restaurant where you can see what people charge for the same thing,” Weiss says. “I had no model to go on.”

Weiss plans to expand the business and has been contacted by businesses in other cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, New York City and Vancouver, B.C. She is pursuing a licensing model, which will allow people in other cities to launch GO Box through a license agreement with her.

“This model can work in any big, dense city,” Weiss says. “The denser the better.”

She also is in the process of creating a smartphone app that would eliminate the need for tokens by tracking the containers electronically.

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