Samantha Sommer & the journey to become a Solutioneer

Did you know that a typical restaurant or cafeteria can procure and dispose of 30-40 individual types of single-use foodware items daily – from cold cups to condiment cups and their lids to plastic forks, and on and on? That’s 30-40 items offered to EACH CUSTOMER, EVERY DAY, multiplied by however many dozens of customers pass through the establishment at mealtimes. 

Did you know that these materials are designed for minutes of use, but some do not break down for hundreds of years and even worse, most are not recycled or composted as marketed? Did you know that plastic is found in our bodies, food, water, air, and oceans? It’s toxic, pervasive, and persistent – and it’s my life’s work to make it go away. 

My journey with plastic pollution began with the Girl Scouts in the ‘80s and ‘90s growing up in West Los Angeles. I was taught to respect people and the planet, participating in recycling events, beach clean-ups, tree plantings, and volunteering at senior centers and food banks. That time left such a deep impression on me – instilling in me the importance of being a contributing member of society and passionately protecting what you love.   

When I was getting ready to move from Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I found a children’s book that I wrote and illustrated when I was about 12 or 13 called “The Magical Trash Fairy” featuring Reality Rosie, a fairy who soared around the globe bringing awareness to communities around a critical and timely message – the planet can’t keep up with the amount of material humans take, and the amount of waste we make. 

The Magical Trash Fairy ca. 1994 or 1995 (photos provided by Samantha Sommer)
Reduce and Reuse

Fast forward two decades, and that message is even more critical and timely. I built a career out of my passion for protecting the planet, and committed to end plastic pollution from the alarming consumption of single-use packaging ubiquitous in every food landscape today. 

After studying farming in college and urban development in grad school, I spent years educating residents and students around the greater Los Angeles area about sustainable living practices with a focus on recycling and composting. I taught in the Recycling and Resource Management program at Santa Monica College and received my certificate in Sustainable Resource Management. 

I thought we were winning the fight against waste. Just recycle and compost everything you can – that was the gold standard. I consulted city governments and commercial businesses on zero waste projects, and planned large zero waste events to the same end.

But pretty soon I got turned onto the “Cradle-to-Cradle” theory – that no biological process in nature creates byproduct that is wasted, and industrial practices could follow this same principle and do no harm to the environment – and I realized that recycling and composting were not the solution.  

Recycling and composting  perpetuate an outdated solid waste management theory that encourages the market to consume and dispose. It subs one material for another that still requires ongoing production, procurement, disposal, and downstream management. This system keeps the throw-away culture running like a fine-tuned machine at the benefit of corporations – and at the expense of the planet and marginalized communities.

So, my mission evolved to reduce and reuse. My target audience was businesses: I wanted to prove that waste equals inefficiency, and while inefficiency leads to lost revenue, reuse can prove profitable for business.  

Reuse does win.

In 2014, I got my chance to end single-use foodware operations and disposability in the food industry by managing the ReThink Disposable campaign for Clean Water Action. We partnered with business and local government with the idea of eliminating waste before it was even generated, which was new and disruptive at that time. 

It was hard convincing businesses that they could trust us, change operations, and reallocate money to a better system that will help their business thrive into the future. I felt like a fish swimming up a waterfall at times, but I gained six valuable years of experience building a program that assisted and certified food operators transitioning to reusables. Teams of field outreach specialists tracked and quantified packaging and waste, as well as cost metrics to understand the impact of those recommendations on a business’s bottom line.

Hundreds of businesses made the transition with Rethink Disposable, including public school districts, restaurants, cafes, quick service and chains, academic and corporate campuses, and even food trucks. 

Today, the participating businesses eliminate over 20 million pieces of single-use packaging annually and hundreds of tons of waste each year from landfill, litter, or incineration. Ninety five percent of these businesses incorporated reusables into their day-to-day onsite dining operations within their given limitations, including dishwashing and labor capacity.

Business after business demonstrated that after getting a quick return on investment – which often took six months or less – they saved thousands of dollars in the first year, and continue to save in the years following, from the avoided disposable foodware and reduced waste hauling services from all that packaging. Many of the business challenges and fears expressed in the beginning of their participation did not play out when piloting operation changes. 

Businesses were happy with results and sustained reuse operations into the future. The results and business stories help support foodware reduction policies at the local level, and encourage other businesses to follow their example. Reuse does win.

I am thrilled to have joined the UPSTREAM family as the Business Innovation Director in March 2020 to hack disposability in the food industry and accelerate reuse models and businesses on a wider scale. UPSTREAM has an amazing platform and strong network of allies across the country that I am excited to support and activate as we co-imagine and build the future reuse economy together through policies, innovations in business, grassroots activism, and help change America’s throw-away culture. 

COVID-19 hit us all hard, especially the food and beverage and hospitality industries. I took a few months to reflect, research, watch, and listen in order to pivot our strategy and programs to be relevant and viable during the time of covid. Food operators are working under extreme conditions and trying to untangle a complex web of pandemic-era guidelines and changing regulations. There are new challenges for reuse, but there are also new opportunities to help businesses without sacrificing our pollution prevention and public health goals. 

Reimagining the food service industry

UPSTREAM is charging ahead, developing innovative programs and policies that support foodservice operators safely and cost effectively in the switch to reusable foodware. We are showing that reuse is safe and sanitary, and we have identified the take-out and delivery markets as the next big challenge to reimagine.

One exciting new program we are developing and testing is the Serve It Safe: Reusable Take-out pilot, a partnership between Dishcraft Robotics and UPSTREAM to provide a reusable take-out container delivery and washing service to select Bay Area restaurants. The pilot will evaluate the feasibility and environmental and economic impacts of a daily delivery service for local restaurants. Restaurant recruitment started in early August, and we are thrilled to help businesses accelerate reuse in the take-out and delivery markets. 

Dishcraft’s dishwashing service of reusable containers (image provided by UPSTREAM and Dishcraft)

It’s been a long, strange, but exciting journey from the “Magical Trash Fairy” to helping uplift businesses through reuse solutions. But it’s one that has opened my eyes to the possibilities that exist when we learn and apply better and more sustainable ways of doing business. 

To learn more about Dishcraft and the Serve It Safe: Reusable Take-out pilot, please visit: www.dishcraft.com.  If you are a restaurant business who would like to participate in the pilot, please contact: Samantha Sommer, samantha@upstreamsolutions.org