Photo Credit: Visko Hatfield

Sometimes the best ideas arise from the simplest of things.  

Among policymakers and academics in the sustainability world, the concept of circularity has recently been garnering increased traction. In theory, circularity refers to the reusing of plastics or other resources as often as possible to reduce waste and the emissions caused by products that are only used once.

In practice, circularity can mean something as simple as washing more dishes. And for a relatively new company called Re:Dish, it’s a business opportunity.

Re:Dish is pioneering the idea that institutions, their employees, and the broader universe they serve will benefit by reducing waste streams that are filled with disposable food service packaging. The system works like this: Re:Dish supplies high-quality dishware, cups, and containers to its customers, which include corporate cafeterias, schools, senior living communities, hospitals, and other institutions. After the materials are used, Re:Dish brings them back to its industrial dishwashing facilities, where they are cleaned, sterilized, and returned to the customer for reuse. In the course of these repeat journeys, each item is tracked and recorded for transparency and data collection.

“In simple language, we are a giant dishwashing operation,” said Chief Executive Officer Caroline Vanderlip, a veteran corporate executive and entrepreneur. “In more strategic language, we are an industrial assembly line built to enable reuse at scale.”

Re:Dish is part of a growing ecosystem of companies worldwide that are emerging with on-the-ground, practical solutions to global environmental and sustainability issues. The company, which began operations in 2020 in New York, serviced 400,000 business employees in their offices and 75,000 K-12 students last year. That was triple the previous year. Overall, 1.7 million items were washed and reused.

A Disruptive Force in a City that Wants to Go Greener

Earlier this year, Re:Dish expanded into the Greater Philadelphia region with a dishwashing facility in the City of Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood and several customers, including Chamber investors Aramark, Independence Blue Cross, as well as Barclays Bank. Re:Dish employs seven people in its Philadelphia facility and plans to expand as demand grows.

“Re:Dish is a disruptor,” said Altoro Hall, Senior Director of Manufacturing, Industrial Real Estate and Retention Strategies for the City of Philadelphia Department of Commerce. “They are doing things that aren’t being done elsewhere and creating jobs.”

The Department of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia (the Chamber) worked with Re:Dish on its expansion into the region, providing the start-up with information about incentive programs and permitting and introducing company executives to the appropriate people to help with an array of business needs.

For both the city and the Chamber, Re:Dish’s mission is in line with Mayor Cherelle Parker’s agenda to make Philadelphia the safest, cleanest, and greenest big city in the nation with economic opportunity for all. Re:Dish’s expansion into Greater Philadelphia also reflects a growing emphasis and commitment to sustainability by regional stakeholders.

 What to do with the Trash: Don’t Create Any

Re:Dish’s story begins as so many start-ups do – with a desire to address a problem close to home, in this case, the 14 million tons of trash that New York City produces each year.

“As a consumer living in New York City, you can’t avoid the waste issue,” Vanderlip said. “It’s a never-ending problem.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s waste-management hierarchy ranked waste reduction and reuse as the best ways of helping the environment when it comes to trash disposal. This is especially true in big urban areas, such as Philadelphia.

“We can’t manage waste,” Vanderlip said. “We need to reduce it because so much of our waste is filling landfills.”

Several findings emerged as Vanderlip became more interested and educated on the issue. One was that disposable food packaging is now a leading contributor to the waste stream. Second, if reuse were to become a thing, it would require decidedly unglamorous and capital-intensive infrastructure to make it work.

“That’s what was missing to enable reuse. Most companies and most institutions do not have the dish room capability to make things reusable,” she said. “Oftentimes they have a small dish room. It has a 20-year-old dishwasher in it that is no different than the one used at home. It certainly wasn’t built for sustainable use of water and energy.”

So, an industrial-size dishwashing operation, combined with the means to get the items back and forth to customers, was essential.

Fixing a Big Problem in Scalable Ways

Also important is the need for consumers – the employees of Re:Dish’s customers – to understand and embrace the new system. To help with that, every dish, cup, and plate from Re:Dish has a unique QR code that allows users to see how many times each item has been washed and the positive impact that’s having on the environment.

“The keys to our program’s success are communication and training, signage everywhere, and data that reinforces circularity. The user should know why they’re being asked to go from disposable to reusable and to do so habitually,” she said.

In short, that means breaking down a massive problem like climate change into simple and actionable ways for people to participate in its mitigation.

“I believe that for many people, climate change is just too big of an issue,” she said. “Their reaction to it is often, ‘What I do is not going to have an impact.’

“What we try to do in this program is give users agency. You can now know that every day, when you take that salad at lunch in a reusable container, you are actually supporting the reverse of climate change because you are not contributing to waste. You are actually contributing to a measurable system that reduces that waste.”

Re:Dish, which has the backing of private investors, is spending these first few years in a process of iteration as its leadership learns the best practices to prepare for future growth.

“We basically analyze every small component. We’ve broken it up into dozens of steps,” she said. “We do throughput analysis to understand where the process gets jammed, where we need to put more people on it, where we can develop automation that can help us scale.”

Philadelphia was a natural extension of its New York operations, and the company plans to expand into Boston soon.

“We knew from our New York experience that we needed our own warehouse space on the ground floor with loading docks and a specific layout,” she said. “We were very pleased that we were able to secure what we need in Philly in a way that didn’t require a significant build out.”

Currently, the Philadelphia facility operates on one shift, but the hope is that it will eventually run 24-7 due to demand.

“We are very much looking for the kinds of markets and customers that are receptive to sustainability initiatives and honestly don’t need legislation to tell them to do what’s right,” she said. “Our decisions should be driven by the safety and beauty of our environment.”

For more information about how the region and how the Chamber can support your company’s location and expansion efforts, visit Select Greater Philadelphia. Click on this link for a look at what the Chamber is doing to promote a cleaner, greener, and safer future in Philadelphia.