How Climate, Carbon & Reuse Come Together

By Closed Loop Partners & Just Salad

November 17, 2022

Georgia Sherwin, Senior Director at Closed Loop Partners interviews Sandra Noonan, Chief Sustainability Officer at Just Salad, a direct investment of Closed Loop Partners. Just Salad is the home of the world’s largest restaurant reusable bowl program and is the first U.S. restaurant chain to carbon label its menu.

1. In 2020, Just Salad became one of the first US chain restaurants to show the estimated carbon footprint of every item on its menu, why was this so important to do and what have been the impacts on your business to date?

In 1994, the Nutrition Facts panel began appearing on food products. Today it is one of the most ubiquitous labels in the world and many of us depend on it to make purchasing choices. Nearly 30 years later, we know that food systems represent more than 34% of total greenhouse gas emissions (according to a 2021 paper published by Nature). Our food choices affect the temperature of the planet and its long-term habitability. So, food labels should help us evaluate ecosystem impacts, as well as nutritional content. That is the perspective that went into our carbon labels. They indicate the estimated quantity of greenhouse gas emissions associated with each item on our menu. Several research studies show that people will change their purchasing behavior in response to carbon labels. When we were developing our carbon labels, I wanted a term to describe eaters who consider taste, nutrition, and environmental sustainability when ordering from our menu. We chose the term Climatarian. Today, Just Salad’s digital menus feature a “Climatarian” dietary filter showing our lowest-footprint items. Carbon labels give us ingredient-level insight. We’ve worked with our third-party verifier, Planet FWD, to quantify the impacts of specific sourcing decisions. For example, we found that by switching from conventionally cultivated quinoa to Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) quinoa, we’ve reduced the greenhouse gas emissions associated with two menu items by 3.29%, which will add up to approximately 1.83 tons of CO2e over the year 2022. With Planet FWD’s help, we’re generating similar calculations demonstrating the impact of other ingredients, like vegan feta cheese, and more resource-efficient packaging, like our reusable bowl program. We’ve also partnered with researchers at University of Pennsylvania and Harvard on a survey that assesses customers’ engagement with our carbon labels.

2. While we know reuse has an important role to play in reducing single-use plastic waste, how do you think about the carbon footprint attached to these reuse systems that typically require more energy and material during manufacturing, as well as complex reverse logistics?

It takes energy to produce a piece of packaging, whether reusable or disposable. Reusable packaging needs to be durable and long-lasting. Therefore, the carbon footprint from manufacturing it will be higher than for a flimsier, disposable container. What we’re optimizing for is the overall, lifecycle footprint of our reusable containers. We want it to be lower than disposables after the smallest possible number of uses. One factor affecting this is the type of material from which your reusable container is made, and how frequently your customers will reuse it. The less resource-intensive your material, and the more frequently your customers reuse it, the faster you’ll achieve the lifecycle emissions savings versus disposables. As for reverse logistics, we incentivize customers to keep bringing back their reusable containers by providing a free topping with every reuse. We offer additional rewards throughout the year to keep the reuse cycle going. For example, when we launched plant-based Beyond Chicken, customers who brought in reusable bowls received that item for free. At new store openings, we hold “$5 salad days” for reusable bowl customers. I’m proud of the fact that we tie rewards to circular, resource-conscious behaviors.

3. What kind of data have you uncovered to support the environmental case for reusable packaging? How do you verify this and what are some of the biggest challenges regarding impact measurement?

In 2022, we completed a third-party lifecycle assessment comparing the environmental impacts of our reusable and disposable packaging. We estimated the greenhouse gas emissions and water use associated with every stage: materials, manufacturing, the packaging they arrive in, distribution, first use and end of life. The LCA concluded that after two uses, the Just Salad reusable bowl has less global warming impacts than a disposable fiber bowl. These findings are substantiated through Monte Carlo uncertainty analyses with 95% confidence. If you were to eat at Just Salad every week for a year using our reusable bowl, your carbon footprint would be 89% lower than if you’d eaten out of a disposable container. The results also show that the reusable bowl results in less water consumption impacts after the second use (though uncertainty in the underlying water consumption data prevents these estimates from being substantiated at the 95% confidence level). To maximize the water-conservation and greenhouse gas emission benefits, we recommend that customers wash the Reusable Bowl in a full dishwasher at the most energy- and water-efficient setting possible.

Of course, lifecycle analyses are only as good as the assumptions upon which they’re based. We worked with our LCA partners over the course of a year to collect and verify our data. That was challenging, if only because of the time investment required. We were privileged to work with experts who cared deeply about data quality and rigor. They performed sensitivity analyses on our base assumptions (for example, our assumptions about the proportion of containers that are washed by hand versus dishwasher). The sensitivity analysis gave us even more confidence in the final results.

4. How have your reusable bowl programs evolved over time? What’s the customer experience look like?

Since 2006, when we opened our very first store, Just Salad has offered an in-store program that works as follows: Buy a reusable bowl for $1, and every time you bring it back, you get a free salad topping, like avocado. In 2022, we piloted a digital version of this program: In the Just Salad mobile app, you can opt in to our “BringBack” program. When ordering your meal, simple toggle BringBack Bowl Pickup. Your salad will be packaged in a reusable container that you can then bring back to Just Salad on your next visit. We will handle the washing and sanitation. BringBack is currently live at two stores and will roll out to a total of 10 stores in the coming months.

5. What would your advice be to a foodservice provider considering a shift to reuse? What are the different kinds of benefits they could anticipate, beyond simply environmental?

This year, we gave a comprehensive course on our reusable packaging program. (Companies and individuals can sign up for updates on future courses through the course site, Summing up that course, I would advise anyone to take a systems-level perspective. Think about every stage of the packaging’s journey including Production, Consumption, Collection, and Processing. Then, consider how your customer interacts with the packaging at each of those stages. Finally, put a data collection system in place so you can measure and track environmental impact. Separately, seek out a support network that is as passionate about reuse as you are. That has helped me a lot.

Across Closed Loop Partners and our Center for the Circular Economy, we are testing, piloting and investing in reusable packaging models in order to accelerate their pathway to scale. We see reuse as a primary means to addressing the mounting single-use plastics waste challenge, reducing the need for virgin plastic extraction and keeping valuable materials in play.

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