Topanga eliminates single-use plastics from your Grubhub order

As a person who cares about the environment, a steel vacuum mug for coffee and the right water bottle are living companions for me when I’m on the go. When I order takeout or delivery, I (almost always) face a problem with disposable packaging. Containers and packaging formed nearly a third of US municipal waste in 2018 while EU estimates from the same period assume that by 2025 million take-away containers will be used per year. These numbers seem to have up since the pandemic, not down. What if there was another way? You guessed it: That’s exactly what Topanga is targeting with its latest $3.6 million funding round.

Following in the footsteps of Facebook and Tinder, Topanga’s growth strategy uses campuses as a platform for its reuse program, allowing packaging to be tracked and returned using a QR code. There are even rewards for participating. It is currently deployed on six campuses and Topanga’s CEO Page Schult explained why they chose the collegiate model.

A QR code tracks the different bins through the circulation system. Photo credit: Topanga

First, campuses make it easy for people to return packaging. Second, it’s easier for companies to track their packaging when its use is restricted to a limited area. Third, it helps make it a habit for a generation of people who go out into the world and continue to expect that kind of reuse.

Returnable containers are one thing – Algramo solves this problem for the UK and Chile, Pyxo and Bibak take care of the problem in France and Dispatch Goods targets the US market. The problem is so big that there is room for many different players for now, and testing multiple variants of the solution is a good thing in my opinion. Working with a large grocery delivery service like Grubhub is probably a good way to find the right product for the market.

“We are anchoring a new behavior in a generation of young people who will carry it through life,” said Schult, referring to the size of the market: “The US college market alone represents a market opportunity of over $3.6 billion. When considering campus-adjacent markets such as corporate dining and universities in Canada, Australia and the EU, this market opportunity continues to grow.”

Indeed, if Topanga scales the way Schult envisions, on college campuses and similar grocery markets, the company can save an estimated 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it is estimated that this could save the economy $120 billion in wasted plastic and 222 million tons of CO2 annually2 emissions.

For Schult, the rewards—not just for Topanga, but for society as a whole—are enormous.

“Ultimately, our mission is to build circular systems that achieve measurable environmental and economic ROI without generating unnecessary waste,” said Schult. “If we succeed in 10 years, reusable packaging will have proven not only a sustainable choice, but a smart business decision for companies and supply chains around the world.”

From Topanaga’s perspective, now is the time to introduce these changes. First, the world is technologically capable of facilitating easy tracking, return and reuse of packaging. But people also want to be able to make simple changes that are better for the environment.

Page Schult, Max Olshansky and Adam Bailey, co-founders of Topanga. Photo credit: Topanga

“The ordering and fulfillment experience has evolved enormously in recent years,” said Schult. “With mobile ordering platforms, mobile payments and new delivery services, these technological changes have made our platform possible. We are part of it. For example, this fall, reusable Topanga-tagged containers will be shipped to students in Colorado State University’s Starship zero-emission robots.”

In addition to the Amasia-led funding round with participation from Struck Capital and Wonder Ventures, Topanga is also embedded directly into Grubhub’s user interface and has deals with the three largest grocery retailers in the US: Aramark, Sodexo and Compass.

I’m surprised Topanga chose to use reusable plastic packaging. After all, it’s still derived from petrochemicals, and there’s still a temptation to dispose of it like any other single-use plastic out of habit or convenience. I wonder if tempered glass or even something as simple as metal would be better options; Tiffins have been used for at least a few hundred years. All can be reused indefinitely and people are less likely to throw them away. But Topangas is a step in the right direction and perfection shouldn’t be the enemy of good. Maybe that’s for another day.

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