Tackling Single-Use Plastics: How 5 innovative companies rise to the challenge

January 2024

Featured technology

Single-Use Plastics Challenge

Who we’re helping

Local communities, businesses, our food partners

Our role

Promote and support food companies that offer innovative solutions free of single-use plastics packaging in collaboration with our food service partners

A group photo of the Single-Use Plastics Challenge finalists

Thirteen companies offering innovative reusable and refillable packaging solutions participated in Google’s Single-Use Plastics Challenge with the goal of connecting users and suppliers of packaging alternatives for the benefit of the entire food industry. Nine companies were selected to work with industry-leading food service partners, such as Canteen, Compass Group and Guckenheimer and test their products in Google’s U.S.-based cafes and MicroKitchens. Ranging from reusable snack bags to edible cutlery, refillable commercial cooking oil vessels and data-powered bulk food dispensers—the innovations by the finalists challenge a food system that remains largely dependent on economic, one-time-use plastics. This is the story of five of them:

Thousand-year-old tradition meets modern coffee shop

When Sanjeev Mankotia traveled to India some 15 years ago, he was struck watching local street vendors give out tea in handmade takeaway clay cups. Known as ‘kulhar,’ the cups are customarily smashed on the ground once the tea is finished, returning the clay to the earth. The inspiration stayed with Mankotia, and in 2019 he began working on GaeaStar, a San Francisco and Berlin, Germany-based company that brings the thousand-year-old tradition to coffee shops in the United States and Europe in the form of eggshell-thin, 3D-printed clay cups.

“Today’s plastic and paper to-go cups require vast amounts of resources and processing for only 15 minutes of convenience. We simply have to provide better solutions to solve the pollution crisis,” Mankotia said, adding that the global population uses around 500 billion single-use cups every year. Those cups typically end up in landfills and are one of the top ten items found littering beaches around the world.

GaeaStar’s washable and reusable cups are seeing surging demand, Mankotia said, showing that people are longing for a sustainable alternative to plastic. The company said it is currently exploring an end-to-end waste lifecycle model with the city of Zurich and a local coffee shop.

“For people to adopt solutions, it’s really important to give them a nicer experience with the same convenience,” Mankotia said.

The Google challenge allowed GaeaStar to better understand large-scale corporate food operations and offered valuable connections to food service management companies, Mankotia said.

Thinking about future generations

“After exhausting our food operations’ vendor supplier network in search of plastic-free solutions, we were motivated to explore more creative approaches. The Single-Use Plastics Challenge has been incredibly inspiring so far and I'm excited to see these solutions move to the next phase,” said Mike Werner, Google’s Head of Sustainability Programs & Innovation, and one of the challenge’s executive sponsors.

The challenge is part of Google’s larger circular economy efforts, which incorporate the framework of “Refuse, Reuse, Reduce and Recycle” to address environmental impacts through the maximum reuse of finite resources and designing out waste and pollution from the start. Scaling reusable and plastic-free processes and products across Google’s kitchens and cafes will do its small part in reducing plastic pollution.

For Kate and Bryan Flynn, the couple behind California-based health food company Sun & Swell, the plastics challenge became apparent when the company received its first pallet of plastic-wrapped custom packaging in 2019. At the time expecting their first child, the Flynn family quickly realized it had to pivot its operations.

“I think we finally understood for the first time what it really means to think about future generations. I don't know if we would have made the same decision without having been pregnant. The personal question of what kind of legacy we want to leave behind was an important part of our decision to move away from plastic,” Kate Flynn said, visibly emotional.

Sun & Swell now sells its snacks and pantry staples in compostable packaging made out of paper, soy and corn-based film. To apply for the Single-Use Plastics Challenge, they piloted reusable packaging for some of its snacks. The company sells directly to corporate offices, hotels, stadiums and catering companies with composting operations and offers a compostable bag send-back program to consumers without access to composting facilities. Sun & Swell says their efforts have avoided the use of some 850,000 plastic bags to date.

“We learned pretty quickly that the way the traditional food system is set up is not built to work with reusable packaging. It's built to work on single-use plastic, and that has a lot of product, supply chain, and distribution implications,” said Kate Flynn.

Disposable plastic makes up the bulk of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste polluting the planet, a staggering amount and forecasted to nearly double in size by 2050. Only nine percent of plastic waste is recycled—and the majority of it accumulates in landfills where it takes up to 500 years to degrade or it washes off into the seas, harming birds, marine animals and fish.

Creating awareness is key

Confronted with the sight of a trash bag full of disposable plastic spoons at his local California ice cream shop in 2018, Dinesh Tadepalli, Co-Founder of Incredible Eats, similarly considered the future for his children when he decided to explore the concept of edible cutlery. In the U.S. alone, 100 million pieces of plastic cutlery are used each day, the majority of which end up in landfills.

After spending some eight months experimenting with different mixtures and molds, Tadepalli perfected his first home-baked edible spoons made out of wheat, oat, corn, chickpeas and brown rice, and later sold his family house to invest the proceeds in an India-based manufacturing facility. Incredible Eats has since added straws and forks to their edible line-up available in several sweet and savory flavors, with the company’s products holding their shape for 30 minutes in a hot soup or cold desert. It says it has replaced some seven million plastic cutlery pieces to date.

Tadepalli, who is increasingly looking to sell to the foodservice industry and quick-service restaurants, said Google’s reach and connection with large foodservice vendors was crucial in expanding awareness of his company.

“Asking large food companies to entirely replace their plastic cutlery with our edible versions is difficult, but I know customers will choose an edible spoon when it’s offered to them as an additional menu item, and creating that awareness is key,” Tadepalli said.

Valuable feedback & cross-company collaboration

For many of the companies, being able to test their products in Google MicroKitchens and cafes also provides an opportunity for valuable feedback. Jennifer Look-Hong, Chief Executive, and Geoffrey MacKay, Chief Operating Officer of The Aggressive Good (TAG) said working with Google opened their eyes to the wide array of use cases for their bulk management system.

Based in Ottawa, Canada, TAG developed its first prototype for a data-powered, one-touch bulk dispensing system in 2020. TAG allows consumers to control the exact price and weight of their purchase via a digital screen, avoiding the extra step of having to weigh individual items. A data analytics system tracks inventory to optimize freshness and reduce food waste.

“We want to make it easy for consumers and businesses to change habitual behaviors. Just because it has been done this way for many years, doesn't mean it's the best way to do it now,” MacKay said.

While TAG originally focused on selling its system to grocery stores, the team has since pivoted to target corporate offices, fulfillment centers and hotels with waste minimization goals, seeing growing demand from as far-flung places as New Zealand.

The Google challenge also fostered cross-company collaboration, with TAG now planning to introduce GaeaStar’s 3D-printed clay cups to hotel partners for use with its bulk system.

Bringing back-of-the-house solutions to the front

While many of the Single-Use Plastics Challenge’s participants are consumer-facing, California-based Eco Refill Systems has dedicated itself to eliminating large amounts of plastic waste that remain hidden from end-users’ sights. With a 25-year career in the cooking oil importing and distribution business, Bernadette Sarouli, Eco Refill Systems’ CEO, knew firsthand how much commercial kitchens rely on plastic containers. However, these containers cannot be recycled due to oil contamination.

Sarouli and her team quickly understood that refillable stainless steel vessels were the answer. But, finding a supplier to manufacture the containers proved to be a challenge. The company eventually located an Italian company able to custom-design a vessel that features a spigot, a nozzle opening for filling, and an air valve for kitchens to release pressure and increase or decrease the flow of oil.

The “handsome Italians,” as the company dubs its metal vessels, are now in use across restaurants, corporate kitchens and catering companies in California and Nebraska.

Each of Eco Refill Systems’ 10- and 50-liter (2.6- and 13-gallon) vessels now replace three or 12 one-gallon plastic jugs typically used in kitchens. The impact is quickly adding up: Since its launch in 2015, the company says it has saved the empty plastic container waste weight equivalent to 89 passenger cars.

“Many people are not aware of the back-of-the-house waste that gets created, but the impact becomes exponential very quickly with large corporate kitchens,” Sarouli said, adding that the Google Challenge would allow the company to significantly expand its reach.

Change is possible

For the companies participating in the Google challenge, raising awareness about single-use plastics is key. Change is possible, they say, as evidenced by the growing number of corporate offices, catering companies, universities, hotels, stadiums and restaurants embracing single-use plastics alternatives.

“We know that you can’t force something new through an old system, and we need more partners like Google to figure out what a new system could look like,” Sun & Swell’s Kate Flynn said.