Jessica Mason Tackles Take-out Trash

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A new pilot program urges you to take away, don’t throw away.

You may not realize this but, even with all of the current recycling initiatives in place, most plastic is still never recycled. According to Jessica Mason, founder of the pilot program Island Eats MV, a whopping 91% ends up in landfills, including plastics that are produced to be recyclable, and even those that conscientious consumers throw in recycling cans and bins. 

“When you start to dive into the depths of it [recycling], it’s an incredibly complex system,” says Mason. “When we put something in the recycling bin, we think we’ve done our job. It’s not that easy. Recycling isn’t the panacea that we thought it might be.”

Although many Island restaurants are now opting for plastic alternatives, Mason notes that even those are not a foolproof solution. In a press release she writes, “Those so-called ‘biodegradable’ and ‘plant-based’ containers? Most are really a combination of plant-produced starch and … plastic. And even ‘compostable’ containers are just regular trash piling up in landfill unless we can ensure they actually make it to a commercial facility.” Apparently, even under the best of circumstances, much recyclable material actually ends up as regular trash.  

—Photo courtesy of Island Eats

To address this problem, Mason launched the initiative Island Eats MV, a closed loop reusable takeout container system. The program, started in May with a trial run through September, will provide a workable solution to the problem of the landfill-bound waste created by restaurant to-go containers. By providing consumers with the option of a reusable 75%-recycled stainless-steel container system, Mason aims to help cut back on plastic and other forms of landfill bound waste. 

“Think of it as all our favorite takeout without the heart-wrenching waste,” says Mason. 

She explains how the model works. “You purchase a wooden token, which entitles you to use one reusable container at a time. When the restaurant gives you the [stainless-steel] bowl for your takeout you give them your token. You get the token back when you return the bowl to any of the participating businesses.”

Island Eats will collect the bowls from the businesses and wash them at Kitchen Porch’s commercial kitchen facility before returning them to the restaurants. 

For the pilot program, five local businesses have signed up — MV Salads, Bobby B’s, Black Sheep, Pawnee House, and the Katama General Store. Mason notes that a number of other Island businesses were interested in jumping on board but she had determined that the trial program needed to be capped at five. Mason, a Chilmark resident and executive director of a national nonprofit that helps launch cooperative businesses, hopes that one day Island Eats will become self-reliant. “The goal is for it to be a restaurant-owned cooperative. The businesses would share the governance and profit with the community.”

Mason notes that similar reusable takeout container programs have proven successful in US cities and places in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. She had anticipated that the system would work well here and, so far, the program has been met with enthusiasm by both consumers and business owners. She has had to put some local restaurants and consumers on a waiting list for the future, when, hopefully a more full-scale program will follow the pilot. 

“I think we have a community here that is largely conscious of how we are impacted by the climate and environmental issues,” says Mason. “We live so closely to the land. We feel it more strongly than other folks do. The landfill is a really important issue on the Island.”

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