Dish Truck: A Viable Alternative to Compostables

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Tompkins Weekly      3-7-16

By Joey Diana Gates

Since October 2014, a small, focused team has been meeting to strategize providing a service at festivals, farmers’ markets, conferences as well as to restaurants and others whereby instead of food and drinks being served in traditional disposable take-out ware, durable dishes are used. The dishes are then collected, washed and returned to the original purveyor. In short we call it Dish Truck. The idea has attracted great energy, ideas on how to implement and potential donors to the cause.

The initial idea behind Dish Truck was to further lessen the life cycle impacts of getting take-out food through the use of durable dishes. The main bi-product of using durable dishes is gray water, a potentially nutrient rich resource. Compostable to-go dishes, while a welcome change from products of yore, still have significant environmental impacts, including the fact that many are imported from China. As the Dish Truck team began working through our strategies, in January of this year, Tompkins County Solid Waste and Cayuga Compost issued a press release stating, “Beginning April 1st, 2016 only food items and paper napkins and paper towels will be accepted, along with compostable bin liners. That means compostable plastics and other food soiled paper – such as all cups and plates – will no longer be collected as part of the food scraps recycling program.” Our mission has become more urgent, now that the waste stream is going to grow exponentially again.

In researching how to implement our ideas, we found that back in 2009, with the help of a grant from the city of Portland, Oregon, area farmers’ markets pioneered their Durable Dining program. Customers are served on durable dishes that they return to specially marked bins at the dirty dish stations where they can also find compost, recycling and waste receptacles. In their first season of operation, thousands of disposables were displaced. Other examples of such programs can be found in Canada and Australia, and right here. Caterers often haul their own dishes, cutlery, glasses and napkins to events, though doing so adds weight and work to the job. As long as the dishes are run through the traditional wash, rinse and sanitize cycle in a licensed commercial kitchen, this is permitted by the health department.

We are working with partners across the community to include Tompkins County Solid Waste and festival coordinators. Our advisory team is open to the public and is currently comprised of Mike Culotta – Project Consultant, Mark Darling – Ithaca College Sustainability Coordinator, retired, myself – Owner, Solar Systems Unlimited, Coordinator, Earth Day Ithaca, Margaret McCasland – energy consultant, Jan Norman – Owner, Ithacamade, Silk Oak & Member, Ithaca Farmers’ Market Sustainability Committee and Gerald Torres – Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law at Cornell. While we work on the business model we are also actively seeking fiscal sponsorship through a local 501c3 to allow us to accept the generous donations in waiting and to put plans in motion.

Part of our mission is to make the process easier for both prepared food providers and consumers as well as to event coordinators. To that end we have developed a survey that we are circulating to assess the needs and thoughts of our local food vendors, event coordinators and the public. The survey is available electronically and on paper and can be obtained by emailing Joey Diana Gates at or calling 607.387.7799. We also welcome new planning group members and volunteers to help make this happen. Imagine the piles of waste that will disappear and being a part of the next solution to pollution.

This article is the second part of Beyond Compostables, an article published in Tompkins Weekly in October 2015. You can read Part 1 at


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