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This restaurant takeout service swaps styrofoam for sustainable

Editor's Note: Some footage in this report was provided courtesy Open Eye Creative.

After big cities like San Francisco banned businesses from using styrofoam containers, a woman from Durham, North Carolina, who was fed up with the plastic trash began her own crusade. When her efforts toward passing a local ban failed, she decided to focus on small-scale change by partnering with a takeout service that use reusable containers. The NewsHour’s Teresa Carey reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, what started as one-woman crusade against styrofoam takeout containers quickly became a community cleanup effort involving volunteers from all walks of life.

    The "NewsHour"'s Teresa Carey went to Durham, North Carolina to meet the entrepreneurs behind Green to Go.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Crystal Dreisbach is fed up with trash produced from throwaway food containers.

  • Crystal Dreisbach:

    There's all this existing research evidence that styrofoam and other plastics are bad for our health, for the environment, for the people who manufacture them. Why are we still using them?

  • Teresa Carey:

    Styrofoam is a form of plastic that contains the chemical styrene, which can cause impaired memory, vision and hearing loss, and cancer.

    After cities like San Francisco and Portland banned business from using styrofoam containers, Dreisbach drafted a similar city ordinance with the Durham's Environmental Affairs Board. But she ran into too many bureaucratic hurdles, and it failed to gain approval.

  • Crystal Dreisbach:

    I was disappointed, but undeterred. And I realized at this point there are many other ways to encourage behavior change.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Dreisbach decided to focus on small-scale change. She partnered with Amy Eller to launch Green To Go, a local takeout service that is garbage-free.

  • Amy Eller:

    Most people get takeout food, and they don't even — they don't think that this is a problem. I'm taking on this container and I'm going to just throw it away. And that's just the way it's designed. They wouldn't have designed it this way if it was a problem, right?

  • Teresa Carey:

    Here's how it works. The Green To Go team stocks restaurants with reusable takeout containers. At a member's request, the restaurant packs food orders in checked-out Green To Go containers.

    Once finished, patrons return the dirty container to stations across the city. Green To Go volunteers pick up, wash, sanitize, and redistribute clean containers to the restaurants.

  • Crystal Dreisbach:

    Trash is preventable, and we can do this by offering consumers and restaurants another option, a sustainable option.

  • Teresa Carey:

    For Dreisbach, such an option was long overdue.

    Durham County landfill filled up and closed in 1999. Now, each day, the county's trash is hauled 100 miles to a dump in Sampson County.

    Assistant solid waste manager Patricia Fossum sees trash as an environmental and economic issue.

  • Patricia Fossum:

    When you put that handful of stuff in your trash can, you stop thinking about it, because it's no longer your problem. Well, it comes here to us.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Green To Go launched last summer after a successful crowdfunding campaign. By the end of the summer, more than 30 restaurants will offer the service.

    Seth Gross' restaurant was one of the first to sign up.

  • Seth Gross:

    When we opened Bull City Burger and Brewery seven years ago, I actually had this crazy idea.

    I went to the health department and I said, so I want people to be able to bring their own tupperware or plastic container in, and we're going to put the food in it for them. Are you cool with that? And they said, absolutely not.

    Now, apparently Green To Go has finally figured out a way to do that and make the health department happy.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Like most states, North Carolina does allow consumers to bring in cups to be refilled with beverages, such as soda or coffee. For many members, Green To Go is more than a container service.

  • Bryant Holsenbeck:

    Six years ago, it just occurred to me, I'm like, I'm going to try to live without single-use plastic. One of the hardest things for me to do was not to eat out, or to eat out, yet to eat it all. So, now there's like 20 or 30 restaurants in Durham where I can eat out no problem.

  • Tobin Freid:

    I think a little bit more carefully about, do I need the plastic silverware and all that other stuff? It's made me more thoughtful about the amount of waste that I'm generating.

  • Teresa Carey:

    Duke University's Environmental Science Program calculated the impact Green To Go has on reducing waste. They found that one Green To Go container replaces the need for on average 1,000 disposable takeout containers.

    With the average American disposing of 4.5 pounds of trash each day, Dreisbach and Eller said that reuse is a critical solution to the global waste problem.

  • Amy Eller:

    I want to see a future where it would never even occur to somebody to take their coffee in a cup that they're then going to throw away.

  • Crystal Dreisbach:

    The take-and-trash economy that we live in is unsustainable, and we want to move to a circular economy that we believe is the future. The reuse of all things is possible. You name it, the sky's the limit.

  • Teresa Carey:

    With startup resources provided by a business incubator program, Dreisbach and Eller plan to upgrade the technology, expanding Green To Go to other cities.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Teresa Carey in Durham, North Carolina.

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