Reuse Denver Turns Restaurant Garbage Into Usable Utensils and Flatware

BY Linnea Covington

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Tossing those plates, plastic cutlery, and paper cups can be a thing of the past thanks to Reuse Denver and Diversion Designers. In tandem with the City and County of Denver, the pilot project launched in September, 2023 to work with dine-in food establishments in order to dump disposables for good, replacing them with economic dining sets and cookware. 

“By transitioning away from single-use for dine-in, we can save money on recurring dishware costs, reassess current waste hauling contracts to reduce container size and/or pickup frequency, and offer a more comfortable [dining] environment by offering durable dishware,” said Amber Barbella, owner and operator at Diversion Designers. The project, she added, receives funds from the 10-cent disposable bag fee. 

For example, “MyKings IceCream will be having an annual reduction of 22,291 single-use plastic items and [save] $3,578.64 after the pay period is completed,” continued Barbella. “Many of their items were styrofoam, which has been banned statewide since January 2024.” 

With this policy shift, it’s the perfect opportunity for small businesses to get ahead of the game and work at reducing waste. 

The Way It Works

restaurant dishes hotel pans
Reuse Denver aims to get all the disposable dishes replaced with quality washable ones, including cookware. | Photo by Reuse Denver

Each participant in the Reuse Denver program gets a $600 stipend to spend on reusable goods. In order to help each business work with the budget, the style goals, and needs of the restaurant, Diversion Designers came in to assist. The company helps make sense of the long-term, cost-saving perks of reusable goods, and showcases how much waste can be rescued from landfills. 

“We sign up to do a one-on-one consultation on their atheistic, goal and what the current disposable use is,” said Barbella. “From there we are able to create a purchasing plan for so once it’s approved by the city, we can buy all the dishware for the restaurant to use.”

For example, if a restaurant uses paper plates, the organization works with them to get ceramic or stainless steel versions. Or something like plastic baskets, whatever works in line with what the owner’s aesthetic vision.

“It’s really interesting, a lot of feedback we have gotten is more about customer experience,” added Barbella. “It’s more homey when you’re handed a real bowl as opposed to something disposable.”

A restaurant or cafe doesn’t necessarily need a dish pit either. Since all food establishments are required to have a double-compartment sink, the ability to wash dishes is already in place. Barbella adds some places on the roster have triple-compartment sinks, some have dishwashers, and others don’t. If the following is the case, she said the city has another opportunity to get select eateries funding for a commercial dishwasher. 

The Goal

black woman holding ice cream with pink wall
At MyKings IceCream a lot of the disposable ware has been switched to reusable bowls and spoons. | Photo by Reuse Denver

Currently Reuse Denver has conducted to case studies in order to get more qualitative info. Businesses signed on include Table Public House, Classic Eats Deli, Olive & Finch, Ragin’ Hog BBQ, Meow Wolf, and Gelato Boys.

“We work really closely with each participant to understand their goals and make sure it matches up,” said Barbella, adding some of the restaurants save up to $10,000 a year on disposables. “They hadn’t considered the investment and saving, and once the concept of washing and only buying things once comes into play, it gets people excited.”

LeDay Grant, owner of MyKings IceCream (2851 Colorado Blvd,. Denver) agreed, which is why she signed on to the program to replace paper cups with durable reusable ones.

“The customers appreciate [reusable goods] because they also want to look into ways where they can be more eco-friendly,” she said. “If they see that their community’s small businesses are aiming towards those things, [it’s] a win for the customers and for the business.”

Reuse Denver in Action

classic eats sign in front of coffee shop
Classic Eats is one of the places to get funded by Reuse Denver. | Photo by Reuse Denver

One example of how the program works with the restaurants, said Barbella, is Ragin’ Hog BBQ (4361 Lowell Blvd., Denver). The small barbecue joint wanted stainless steal plates to serve the smoked chicken, burnt ends, and collard greens. It’s this dedication to working with the design goals that really makes the program work.

“Something I have learned is that if we had only given the option of the same nine-inch white plates to everyone, no one would sign up,” added Barbella. “We cater to material, color, and size, as long as the cost is feasible, we are able to make it happen.”

And, If the $600 doesn’t cover all the inventory, the design team focuses on two or three items. 

“I think everyone loves the feeling of eating on a real plate,” said Ivy Casillas, owner of Los Molinos Restaurant (1603 Bruce Randolph Ave., Denver). “At least for me, I love being able to feel that my food is on the plate and not disposing so much [waste].”

Reuse Denver still has a handful of the 35 slots still available. The team urges cafes, ice cream shops, marketplaces, barbecue joints, and more to apply. DiningOut’s own Top Taco worked with Diversion Designers last year for the event, greatly reducing landfill waste. So, if you’re a small food business looking to dispose of disposables, find the application here. As for the customers, next time pay attention to how your favorite eatery deals with dishes. If disposables are heavily used, urge the discontinuation of single-use items. It’s not only good for the environment, but businesses too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linnea Covington

Linnea Covington is the managing editor of DiningOut. She comes to us with a long background in food, restaurant and drinks journalism. Over the last two decades she’s written for tons of publications including Denver Post, Washington Post, Forbes Travel Guide, 5280 Magazine, New York Magazine, New York Times, Time Out New York and more.

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