Refill, Reuse, Recycle: Sustainable Meals To Go
Small items can make a big impact, and that’s what Alison Rogers had in mind when she developed the concept for USEFULL. Disposable containers and other single-use items made of plastic contribute to environmental waste both in their creation and disposal, and eating and drinking out of plastic containers can harm humans as well. But single-use plastics are very convenient, especially in environments like college campuses or business cafeterias where meals are often taken to go to eat outside of the cafeteria.
Alison wondered: How would people who buy meals at the cafeteria located in her office feel about using reusable containers rather than disposable ones?
With that basic question, she started small. She began standing in the cafeteria on her break, offering her colleagues reusable bamboo cups as they got in the line for lunch. While most were open to the idea of reusable cups, they weren’t fans of bamboo products themselves. Thrilled that people were open to reusing containers, Alison began her mission to find the perfect reusable product.
Designed for Sustainability
Stainless steel turned out to be the best option for reusable containers. Not only was it beautiful and durable, but if the product became damaged, the stainless steel could be recycled more easily than plastic.
Alison helped design premium stainless steel cups and bowls, vacuum-sealed to help cold products stay cold and hot products stay hot. In the designs, each cup would include a unique QR code on the bottom, and the USEFULL app could track each item. The intention was for college students or other institutions to check out their cups or bowls much like a library book and then return them within 2 days to be washed in USEFULL’s partner commercial kitchens. This check out process would keep hundreds of disposable containers out of landfills.
USEFULL began accepting pre-orders, and dozens of colleges and businesses were ready to accept a completely new, sustainable way of containing food.
But Alison ran into a major problem, one that can happen to any first time creator. After handing a 50% deposit to a local inventory broker, Alison waited patiently for her first shipment. The shipment never came. The broker took her money and disappeared, leaving Alison with a backlog of unfilled orders and disappointed customers.
That’s when she reached out to Gembah.
A Reliable Partner
After she explained her situation, Gembah assured Alison that they could help her fulfill her production demands. Gembah was able to help Alison in that unfortunate situation, and get the process back on track. Though Alison didn’t have in-depth experience working with factories and managing production, Gembah walked her through the process, supporting her as she learned and guiding her as she navigated new relationships.
Gembah reached out to the factory Alison had already been working with and took over walking the products through quality assurance and quality control, managed production, and shipped the end product to customers. One drawback of this original factory was that they did not work with recycled steel, so Gembah found another factory that was better able to meet USEFULL’s needs. Not only could the new factory use recycled steel, but they also had several certifications needed for the end product.
To say that USEFULL has been a wild success would be an understatement. USEFULL recently won an EPA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, a highly competitive grant which will allow USEFULL to study and implement more sustainable food containers. In fact, USEFULL has grown so rapidly that they’ve been able to hire their own full-time supply chain manager and other employees who will take over the processes that Gembah has been managing.
From a Creator
“The Gembah team has really helped us,” said Alison. “We’ve gotten our first two production runs done with Gembah and built strong relationships with factories because Gembah saved the day. When I came to Gembah it felt like mission impossible. I’ve learned a lot, and while it’s bittersweet to leave Gembah I’m very thankful to have someone full-time focused on managing our products.”