Written by: Emily Jaffe, University of Michigan Journalism Student
Phel Meyer wants you to think inside the box. A Bizee Box to be exact.
The 30-year-old San Diego native can be found most days rushing around Ann Arbor to meet with anyone interested in his start-up company, Bizee Box, a reusable takeout container service.
On this crisp September day, Meyer sips coffee from a mug at Espresso Royale and explains his role as a sustainable entrepreneur. He likes to say, “Business students see me as a hippy. Environmentalists see me as a capitalist pig.”
How does Meyer see himself? “I will always be a business guy. I am an over-educated, progressive, middle-class white guy. I am taking what I learned in school, trying to be idealistic, and making an impact,” Meyer says.
Meyer and his University of Michigan colleague Rich Grousset, 38, founded Bizee Box in June 2013 with the aim of taking some of the waste out of takeout food. Many takeout meals are served in Styrofoam, plastic and paper containers; materials that end up in the landfill and can have health costs. In the United States, restaurants use about 15 billion non-reusable takeout containers per year. Ann Arbor restaurants use over 2 million take-out containers per year. Bizee Box would replace these containers with Number 5 polypropylene plastic – a reusable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe and BPA-free material. Operating like a library, containers will be returned to receptacles, picked up, sanitized and redistributed.
But not everyone is sold on the idea. Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, an industry trade group, doesn’t think the idea will fly. The group has compared public health studies of reusable and non-reusable containers. “Single use food packaging was created over 100 years ago because reusable containers are a very bad idea for sanitation reasons, there is too much room for cross contamination,” Dryer says.
Meyer’s study of waste began as an academic interest. An industrial engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, he studied how to reduce waste up and down the supply chain. While working as an engineering consultant, Meyer read environmental books, such as “Cradle to Cradle,” which challenged conventional thinking about recycling. Meyer asked: “With huge global problems, such as climate change, if people in our generation do not work on these issues, who can we depend on to make these changes?”
With this question in mind, Meyer applied to the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, a dual degree program within the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Meyer thrived as a student of sustainable entrepreneurship. Elected co-president of the Erb Student Advisory Board and recipient of the Erb Global Citizenship Award, “he was well respected by his peers for his ability to listen and hear all sides and to be passionate and competent,” Andrew Hoffman, Director of the Erb Institute, says.
As students, Meyer and Grousset started Bizee Boxes’ pilot program, “Go Blue Box,” at the Michigan Union Club, diverting 4,000 containers from the landfill. “I love that waste is tangible. People see waste and don’t like to generate it, they just don’t have a better option,” Meyer learned.
Because each Bizee Box can be reused 350 times, Ann Arbor restaurants would need about 25,000 boxes to replace non-reusable containers. Each box would reduce 1,400 containers from the landfill.
To takeoff, Bizee Box needs money and restaurant contracts. Using Indiegogo, an international crowd-funding platform, the company has raised $13,797 of the $30,000 necessary to supply purchases. One restaurant has committed to Bizee Box. But most restaurants echo Scott Joling, Vice President of Operations of Jolly Pumpkin. “The idea is intriguing, we would like to see it succeed,” Joling told Meyer. But he has too many cost and operational concerns to commit. “Sustainable enterprises are often much more challenging because you are not just focusing on profit and loss. You are trying to meet an environmental metric as well,” Hoffman says.
Meyer strives to meet this metric. “Phel is infections and has a way of getting people deeply involved in waste advocacy and solutions generation,” Leah Zimmerman, Meyer’s classmate, says.
Back at his makeshift office at Espresso Royale, Meyer meets with Alex Perlman, the owner of Beet Box, a locally sourced food truck. As a fellow sustainable business, Beet Box may be Bizee Boxes’ second contract.
But what if there aren’t more commitments? Stepping out of the café and into the rain, Meyer responds, “I will get creative and make it work – no matter where that may be.”