Freshwater locals Mary Walker and Allison Bentley are no strangers to taking on a new project together, having met and stayed in contact since giving birth to their daughters and being introduced through mothers’ group back in 2016.
Every week, Allison and Mary would catch up for ‘playdates’ in Manly, airing whatever frustration or funny story that happened to be on their minds as their kids played nearby, knowing the often absurd moments raising a family on the beaches would surely be met with reassuring ears.
And while the particular day of their weekly catch ups would often change, bouncing around in gaps between the kids’ morning school or sporting commitments, their regularity would not, especially during lockdown.
So it made perfect sense then, that when Mary began to take notice of the boxes of takeaway trash that were piling up back home after many weeks of being locked up, the two got brainstorming about a more sustainable method to deal with single use waste.
“We’ve both been really passionate about the environment and always bonded over trying to be sustainable and wanting to do more for this beautiful place we call home, especially with young kids as well and concern for what we are leaving for them,” says Allison.
“It is just mind blowing that we still produce and ship around piles of packaging that will be used just once and then thrown away. And as we all know, a lot of it ends up in our environment, causing incredible harm to our wildlife.”
Mary recalled the refundable deposit system that operates in Christmas night markets back in Germany, where she would leave a gold coin deposit at stands when drinking mulled wine to pick up later when the reusable cups were returned.
“Takeaway food and beverage containers also are the most littered items in NSW, and make up the majority of ocean plastics. We were being left with these piles of rubbish, and talking about how that whole problem had gotten worse since COVID. And we thought about what could be done or what could be solved, or how it could be solved,” says Mary.
“So we got thinking of an app solution. In this day and age, everyone carries their phone all the time and everyone pays by phone, so we just thought that would be the easiest way of doing it. Instead of having you know, a deposit that you take, and then have to refund back.”
And like that, a new sustainability service for reducing takeaway waste was born. Their app operates in a similar way to the Christmas Markets, however the process is entirely online.
Now, when customers pick up their takeaway, Devolver logs the exchange of a reusable container, all affixed with a unique number and barcode for tracking. All active containers with their due dates and reminders for return can be found under each user’s account in the mobile app.
No additional money is exchanged. Instead, users are given a fortnight to return their containers free of charge, after which they can pay to extend the loan period, if necessary.
The two eventually decided on the name ‘Devolver’, translated as ‘return’ in spanish. For the first trial, Mary and Allison are offering restaurants the use of containers they’ve specifically made.
After months of testing different materials for durability in their dishwashers at home, the pair settled on stainless steel bases with plastic lids for the boxes.
“We had our container lids sit in our dishwashers at home for about a year non-stop, to see if they would stay put. We tried all kinds of things to ensure they were watertight and completely leak-proof. ” recalls Mary.
“We are offering [the containers] completely [for] free at the moment as well. So we’re not charging. We just want feedback. That’s it.”
So far, several restaurants have signed up to the trial; the Little Shop of Waffles, Manly Farm Organic Grocer and Fika Swedish Kitchen near the Corso in Manly, as well as The Pocket, Shaka and Cruise Espresso in Freshwater.
“I would have to say my favourite part has been the people we’ve met through this – Just the whole sustainability industry, people are so helpful and so wonderful”, says Mary.
Raquel Rodriguez, a manager at the Little Shop of Waffles, was an early adopter of Devolver and has been issuing the containers to customers.
“I think what Allison and Mary are doing is great. They came in and showed us how to use the system. It’s really easy on our end,” she said.
“We just use [the retail version of the app on] our phones when customers are checking out, and can exchange the boxes quickly, especially when they come drop by to drop them in.”
And even though restaurants are currently using Devolver’s containers for free, the business case for making the change is strong.
“We found that, at the moment, other restaurants are paying on average around 20 cents per single use takeaway container, and up to 60 cents for bioplastic ones, which are also going in the bin,” says Mary.
“So the savings [after adopting Devolver] not just for the environment, but for restaurants as well over the long term just make sense.”
The pair have their sights set beyond plastic, partnering with students in Germany to design hundreds of pizza boxes that are now available for restaurants wanting to cut down on non-recyclable cardboard waste.
“If anyone says I was to do another particular type of container, I want to buy my own or have my own branding, they can do that as well and just use our tracking system and join that network,” she adds.
Given Devolver’s initial success, the pair is looking to expand with a second phase trial, and are even in talks with schools to see how their canteens can reduce their container waste in their closed-loop systems.
To them, takeaway packaging has a symbolic effect when it comes to values around sustainability, given how much it is used in daily life and our capacity to make small changes.
“It may not seem like much in the scheme of things, but we think eliminating single use packaging in takeaway will have a larger psychological impact,” says Allison.
“Together, we can contribute towards a shift from a throwaway culture to a circular and sustainable society.”
“Ultimately, this is about saying “no more” to single use when there is another option.”
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