Interview with Sarolta Horváth, one of the founders of Rakun Box Community
One of the biggest challenges during environmental consciousness on a daily basis is definitely that we want to avoid generating trash even if we order food or eat in a restaurant. Rakun Box Community rents durable metal containers to restaurants, and to subscribers for a symbolic price, which enable the litter-free home delivery of food, and also helps with the problem that often due to food safety regulations we cannot use our own container boxes at such places. We interviewed the founder of the community, Sarolta Horvátth.
What should we know about Rakun Box Community?
Primarily we have been leading the Responsible Gastro Hero Foundation for almost ten years with my colleagues. We are working together with many restaurants, and the container used for take-aways is always a problem because it generates a lot of plastic litter. We have been thinking about how to replace them for a long time. First, we recommended degrading material versions for restaurants, but then we further investigated the topic and found out that it does not really make sense for us, because it also ends up in the mixed trash. Theoretically, they can be composted, but it is not sure they degrade in an at-home compost, you need industrial conditions for them, so it is the same kind of trash, only made from a different material as compared to plastic. We have been thinking for a long time about what a good solution would be, and finally, in 2019 we have started a food delivery system based on rent and replacement, which turned into Rakun Box Community, and which is today a separate enterprise in addition to Responsible Gastro Hero.
How does the system work?
The protagonist of the Box Community is one, or more likely, a lot of metal boxes, which are not the property of anyone because everyone rents them. So the goal is not to motivate to purchase but to popularize a system based on sharing. The boxes are rented for a symbolic price by the restaurant, as well as the guests, who are members of the community. They pay a fixed monthly charge, and in exchange, they can use the boxes for an unlimited time at all of the locations. These boxes go round-and-round, they can be submitted at any accepting place. This is important because restaurants are not always happy to put food into a box brought by the guest since this has the risk of cross-contamination.
What is cross-contamination?
No matter if you wash your own food containers in a dishwasher, there still can be invisible contamination on them. Nobody works with an industrial-grade dishwasher at home. If the staff at the restaurant touches it with a ladle, then puts the same ladle into the food, it can indirectly contaminate food, this is called cross-contamination. Restaurants are not happy to take this risk, since if they have a diarrhea pandemic because of this, then they can even close the place. This is why they often do not accept your own dishes or food containers. We have come across this many times during the work of the Foundation: a lot of our followers complained that being litter-free is important to them, but the restaurant is not willing to put the takeaway food into their own container.
Recently we interviewed the CEO of a packaging-free shop, they had the same problem regarding meat products.
I get it. The butcher puts the customer’s container on the scale, on which they put another customer’s purchase. This is not prohibited, but the Department of Health strictly regulates, e.g. that the staff must wash hands after every such action. It is completely unrealistic, that someone takes over your box, puts food into it, then rush to wash their hands in the back. But if this does not happen they have violated the rules already.
How did you find a solution for this problem with the Rakun Box Community?
Our special twist is that the guest brings the Rakun box, but the restaurant does not put the food into what they have brought. They take the guest's box, and replace it with a compliant box that underwent two-phase disinfection, they put food into this one. This way both the restaurant and the guest can rest assured since this is both litter-free and in line with hygiene requirements.
How is Responsible Gastro Hero different from Rakun Box Community?
The Foundation mostly changes the perspective of society. We deal with the environmental impact of eating, including but not limited to the questions of leftover and being litter-free, and try to motivate people to consume seasonal, domestic products, which do not travel 10 000 kilometers, such as Mexican pears. We organize campaigns such as Plastic Straw-free August, or the I Do Not Feed My Trash Can. We award restaurants and catering companies with a Sustainable Company qualification which – even with only a few small steps – makes their operation „greener”. We provide environment protection consultation services to the office, we have events, such as the Green Market, we have activities for pre-schoolers and students, edutainment team buildings, we have manifold activities.
How can changing perspectives help? Even though environmental consciousness is elementary in Western society for all citizens, in Central-East Europe we still like to litter anytime, anywhere.
We like to believe that doing this for ten years counts somehow, since people are more open to this topic, and we can more often come across that someone complaining in a restaurant if they get a plastic straw when they can live without it. Prior to COVID, we had significant results, we organized Plastic-Free July which reached hundred thousands of people, and received a very warm welcome. We progress. Certainly, there is a segment that will throw away cigarette butts at a bus stop even if the trash can is a few steps away. We are never going to reach them, but we hope they are not the majority.
What do you need to make sustainability important for someone? Many say that we can pay attention to this if every other need is fulfilled.
Financial security certainly matters, but I see many people, even among my own friends, who are certainly not rich but still pay attention to this. Environment protection has a perspective, which is about reducing consumption, it is about not buying unnecessary things. This is a really thrifty step. We priced Rakun Box Community such that it is better to pay a monthly fee instead of paying a quarter or two per box every time you order to home or take-away. Of course, bio food and produce from small business owners are more expensive, than buying Mexican pears at Lidl – this is my favorite example – but you can save a lot with environmental consciousness.
My favorites are bananas from Ecuador, which we even put into plastic bags which really does not make any sense. Have you had any specific experiences which sent you along this way, or was this a natural, family tradition that you pay attention to these things?
During my childhood being conscious was natural, since we were not rich either. We have always kept everything since it might be good for something later, and my dad always found everything, so I am sure it gave me a lasting impression that we do not buy new things unnecessarily. Later during my studies, I came across the impending catastrophe, and then I started to research what the individual can do to delay it somewhat. I started to pay attention to what I throw away, and find out where trash ends up from the can. I simply could not accept that everything depends on the leaders of companies, and that individual choice do not matter.
Then I had kids and when that happens to you you start to think in even longer terms because you want future generations to come across birds and bees for example. In my experience, this is a more sensitive topic for moms, and in general, women, are more emotional about it. We see data on the platforms of Responsible Gastro Hero, two-thirds of our followers are women.
What is the reason for this?
Perhaps they are more sensitive or less skeptical. Maybe women are less likely to make up conspiracy theories, they are more gullible in a good way. So if they read that the climate catastrophe is impending they believe it – many men still do not believe it.
How many times do you hear that what you do is greenwashing, since what does one or two plastic boxes mean compared to a delivery guy or a guest burning a lot of fossil fuel during delivery or take-home?
We mostly hear that cleaning multi-use boxes burden the environment as much as producing a plastic box. But this is not true. According to a study for example you need 5.4 liters of water to create a single plastic bottle. An industrial dishwasher – which needs only 2 liters at a time – can fit 11 Rakun boxes, so about two dozen of boxes can be washed from the water which you need to create a bottle. It is true that manufacturing steel is worse for the environment than producing these very thin plastic boxes. However at a certain usage rate, after which you have not zero environmental impact, and from there the scale favors durable boxes.
Recently it has become a kind of trend even for the manufacturers producing the most plastic litter to introduce eco-friendly, ultra-durable packaging, so maybe there is more to it. How many members are there in the Box Community?
Currently, nearly 40 restaurants use the system, but their number increases every day. These are mostly in Budapest, but we already have three members in Pécs, one in Miskolc, one in Kecskemét, and recently we were joined by a place from Győr and Nyíregyháza too. By the end of summer, we would like to have fifty members, and our goal is to reach about 100 by the end of the year. The pandemic did not really help our case, since the HORECA sector was pretty badly affected, but fortunately, it seems more and more discovered this opportunity.
Why is it good for a restaurant to join you?
There are two kinds of restaurants – those who ask for a separate packaging fee or those who build it into the prices. In the latter case, the restaurant can save a lot with our help since the monthly fee of a reusable box is a fraction of the cost of the same number of throw-away boxes. Where they charge box fees separately, there the guests can save using Rakun. For them, the restaurants can more likely have marketing advantages (in addition to peace of mind). And membership is also useful to increase the number of guests. A guest who is a Rakun subscriber will look for opportunities where the boxes are accepted. Maybe previously they have not heard about the place, but because they see it accepts the boxes, they will be more likely to order from them.
Considering the result, is there a difference between using this as a marketing tool or joining this based on a true conviction?
In the first case, motivation does not last very long usually. You need to continually communicate this to guests using social media and in-location. We provide materials for this, posters, and door stickers, but the restaurants must contribute the rest. Those who only begin because of marketing, in our experience will lose motivation within a few weeks, and they really do not use them. However there are many who are really excited, and using massive amounts of plastic for packaging was a pain point. For them, it usually works well, because they recommend this to their guests, and try to lead them on why this is good.
Do you have plans to extend the community beyond restaurants?
Recently we signed a contract with a partner doing public catering, we rented 1000 boxes to them, so this is a working alternative. But we already had orders from a camp for two weeks, as a short-term lease, so participants have somewhere to put their food or leftover. This solution is also available for company events or music events – we are open to every kind of co-operation.
You can learn more on the Facebook page and website of Rakun Box Community where you can also find the current list of members. If you are a community member, take a picture of the box during use, and send it to the REbot daily challenge!