In the earliest seasons of the iconic sitcom, Boy Meets World, Topanga Lawrence is a young, eccentric “hippie” environmentalist who cares about the planet and everyone on it. Headquartered in Los Angeles, Topanga.io is a startup that cares about the planet as well; however instead of performing interpretive dance poetry about the Earth, sun, humpback whales, and pollution like Topanga Lawrence, the California-based startup wants to accelerate the transition to the circular economy through reusable packaging.
With its recent $3.6 million funding round led by Amasia and joined by Struck Capital and Wonder Ventures, and its new partner, Grubhub, Topanga (the startup) is ushering in a new era of reusable food containers. Once upon a time, the milkman delivered milk to residences in glass bottles. Topanga started out doing the same, and since, has scaled its operations to a software suite that helps companies go circular, so now, any company that wants to participate in its reusable packaging program can.
Announced earlier this year, Topanga and Grubhub are bringing sustainable, reusable packaging to two college campuses – Ohio State University and Colorado State University – with plans to expand to more campuses later this year. The duo is going big or going home, with Ohio State having one of the largest on-campus enrollments in the country.
This is how the zero-waste take-out program will work.
Through Topanga’s ReusePass program, students at these universities will activate an account and receive a unique QR code that allows them to check out reusable containers from dining locations across campus. Like library books, the containers have a return due date. After having their ReusePasses scanned at checkout, they will receive to-go orders in reusable containers.
Additionally, students who opt-in to the program can order meals with reusable containers using the Grubhub app, and return them in a similar fashion to participating locations.
This isn’t the first time Topanga has deployed this model. Founded in 2021, it already has deals with three of the largest American food distributors: Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass.
Previously, it launched its college model at the University of South Carolina, Arkansas State University, Boston University, and Brown University. According to Adam Herbert, senior director of campus partnerships at Grubhub, more and more colleges and universities are asking for more planet-friendly options.
“Grubhub’s campus partners have been vocal that sustainable solutions are a top priority, and we're looking forward to working with Topanga.io to support universities’ sustainability efforts," he said in a statement. “The campus dining world presents a large and scalable opportunity for sustainable solutions like this one, and we're excited to expand our suite of campus dining offerings to our partners.”
The startup shows that the model works. With customizable rental rates, no late-return fees, and optional rewards, Topanga has a return rate of 98% on college campuses. As Topanga reports, in one dining hall that saw an average of 1500 participants and 600 reuse meals per day, 15,951 pounds of waste was diverted from landfills, saving 103,586 greenhouse gas emissions and 72,041 gallons of water from manufacturing, all with an average cost of 4 cents per use.
According to Topanga’s CEO, Page Schult via TechCrunch, the startup has many reasons for focusing on college campuses, considering the impact that a consolidated population can have, the ease for participating restaurants to track packaging in a restricted area, and the ease it is to return packaging in this area as well.
Because not everyone is Topanga Lawrence, it helps instill good habits into a generation of young people that will be going out into the world.
“We’re ingraining a new behavior in a generation of young people who will carry it with them through life,” Schult told the publication, highlighting the size of the market: “The college market in the U.S. alone is a $3.6 billion+ market opportunity. Factoring in campus-adjacent markets like corporate dining systems and universities in Canada, Australia, and the EU, this market opportunity continues to grow.”
Aside from the market, the impact is huge. According to Schult, if every campus dining system across the States, Canada, Australia, and the EU had such a model, the startup estimates 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions would be eliminated.
This is because, according to the startup, 300 million tons of packaging waste head to landfills each year. The World Bank reports in 2021, there were about 220 million tertiary education students in the world. In the U.S. alone, that’s nearly 18 million students as of 2022. That’s a sizable portion of the population that would no longer have take-out container waste.
While the fact that Topanga uses reusable plastic containers as opposed to a material like glass that can be recycled infinitely, it still represents a valuable step in the right direction because an average reusable container, regardless of material, requires 2-4 uses to be environmentally and economically superior to single-use.
In total, the startup estimates such a venture would eliminate 222 million tons of CO2 emissions. According to the EPA’s CO2 emissions equivalencies calculator, that's like taking almost 50 million gas-guzzling cars off the road for a year or closing down over 558 gas-firing plants for a year.
On top of the planetary benefits, Topanga also estimates the switch would save the economy $120 billion annually single-use plastic that is tossed into a landfill, and likely not recycled.
Partnering with more than 270 college campuses across the United States with over 365,000 restaurant partners in 4,000 U.S. cities, Grubhub represents a huge opportunity for Topanga to test out this estimate.
“At the end of the day, our mission is to build circular systems that drive measurable environmental and economic ROI [return on investment] without creating unnecessary waste,” Schult told TechCrunch. “If we’ve been successful 10 years from now, reusable packaging will have proven to be not just a sustainable choice, but a savvy business decision for companies and supply chains around the globe.”