A new state policy will let Maine food businesses offer takeout containers that customers can return for cleaning and reuse, which environmental groups say will cut down on costs and single-use plastic pollution. 

In a press release, the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) applauded the change, which was implemented earlier this month. They said the new rules stem from research at the University of Maine, which found that previous state code limited businesses’ options for providing returnable containers. 

“With the pandemic and tight labor markets, these are very difficult times for Maine restaurants and the hospitality industry,” lead researcher and former brewery owner Jared Entwistle said in the NRCM release. “Research suggests that (returnable container) programs not only have environmental benefits, but they can save restaurants considerable money.”

The new state rule applies to food trucks, cafeterias, restaurants and any other business regulated by the state Health Inspection Program. They can now choose to offer reusable containers that customers can return, by dropping them off or having them picked up, either directly to the business or through a third-party service, according to NRCM

The containers are then cleaned and can be reused, often hundreds of times, preventing businesses and diners from generating excess waste with each order by using new containers. Often made of plastic and difficult to recycle, they can pollute ocean ecosystems and drive the fossil fuel production that causes climate change. 

Other cities have seen new businesses spring up under rule changes like Portland’s. In New York, the takeout service DeliverZero brings food in reusable containers and picks them up when customers place their next order. GO Box offers drop-off boxes at participating businesses in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco for people to return their reusable containers for cleaning. 

In the San Diego area, the subscription service M’Porte lets people borrow and return stainless steel containers at participating businesses. And according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, one Pennsylvania chain asks customers to return their containers within four weeks or pay a small fee.