Takeout meals became a way of life for the Levine family, and many others, during the pandemic. But after two years of watching countless plastic and foam containers end up in her family's trashcan, University High School senior Aiko Levine decided to take action.
She started an organization called Takeout Turnaround and spent last summer calling local restaurants and offering to help them transition from plastic and Styrofoam to more sustainable, fiber-based takeout products.
Plastic items from takeout food and drinks make up almost half of the human-made waste in the world's oceans, a 2021 study published in the journal Nature Sustainability found.
Researchers found that food containers, single-use bags, plastic bottles and food wrappers are the four most widespread items polluting the oceans. The study also showed that 10 types of plastic products accounted for three-quarters of the litter, due to their widespread use and extremely slow degradation.
After working with Levine, one prominent Tucson restaurateur made the choice to choose eco-friendly products.
Takeout Turnaround has grown into a school club with other students participating in the effort.
Levine also has the ear of officials at Tucson's largest school district, and the potential to create widespread change in Pima County.
Levine, 17, says she was inspired by a mentor who was passionate about environmental initiatives. Her participation in a research-guided sustainability program prompted her to take action.
"I had the idea for awhile. We were big consumers when it came to ordering takeout during the pandemic," Levine said. "I have a big family, so when we eat out, we always have a bunch of boxes."
She did some research into alternatives to the plastic foam and single-use plastics she watched pile up in the trash, discovering fiber-based products from a California-based company called PrimeWare.
"They're pretty popular. I reached out to them and they sent me a bunch of samples," Levine said. "They were super helpful, so I was very appreciative of that."
From there, Levine began reaching out to local restaurants to gather data on what kind of products they were using and what issues have made it difficult to switch to more sustainable goods.
"I found out a bunch of things. During the pandemic, they needed to order from places that regularly had stock, so they would stick with widespread brands," she said. There wasn't "a good selection of sustainable products."
Restaurant owners also reported other problems.
"(Food) would leak through paper packaging," Levine said. "And a few restaurants mentioned that they wouldn't get publicity for what they were doing and consumers had complained about the product."
But the main driver was the price increase, said Levine.
The consumer reviews about PrimeWare were overwhelmingly positive, so Levine decided to push on and see what she could learn about pricing.
She found a supplier in town that was accessible, but couldn't get anyone to give her price points. At the same time, she was in talks with a local restaurateur who seemed willing to entertain the idea of making a switch, but without prices in hand, his interest fizzled when he realized he'd have to call the distributor on his own.
Finally, someone from the supplier, Western Paper, was willing to give Levine the price points. With the information she needed, Levine was ready to get serious.
Uptown Burger is on board
Levine next approached longtime Tucson restaurant owner and chef Daniel Scordato. His Italian restaurant, Vivace, has been a Foothills staple for years and often makes the list of most romantic restaurants in America.
"He tried to become sustainable 10 years ago, but dealt with leaking containers. Customers weren't appreciative of the change and it was twice the price back then," Levine said. "Since he already tried to do this, it was super helpful to know what I had to do to help him."
A joint meeting with Scordato and Western Paper revealed products that would work for his new venture, Uptown Burger, 6370 N. Campbell Ave. Eco-friendly straws, aluminum cups, paper bags and paper trays all made sense to use in the fast-casual restaurant.
Uptown opened the first weekend in December. Scordato said his decision to go green at Uptown was based largely on his interactions with Levine, who was "so nice and passionate" about the cause.
"It was so sweet how a 17-year-old girl would take the time to work with us on this," Scordato said. "She wasn't trying to shame me, she was just very pragmatic about it."
Scordato said price was a big consideration, but he's been able to get the cost of sustainable wares very close to what it would be for single-use items. He said Uptown uses about 90% sustainable goods in its packaging and utensils, but that number would be significantly lower if it hadn't been for Levine.
Scordato tried to go green with his former restaurant, Posto Sano, which occupied Uptown's spot before closing during the pandemic, but said the cost was too high and the quality poor.
"I probably wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for her showing that it doesn't cost more and the product is better," Scordato said. "She's going places."
Scordato is taking his commitment to the environment a step further than just sustainable goods. Uptown's burgers are made out of Piedmontese beef from the Midwest-based Creek Cattle Company, which touts environmental sustainability, traceability and humane animal handling.
"Dan was super easy to work with. He helped me through the process," Levine said. "This helped me learn what I need to know to adapt my approach to these businesses."
Hoping to incentivize the use of sustainable goods, Takeout Turnaround's website has a section acknowledging restaurants that are using eco-friendly products, including Hotel Congress, Truland Burgers and Seis Kitchen. The page welcomes other businesses to contact the group to have their name added to the list.
"I want to see 10 restaurants in Tucson make the change," Levine said. "But five would be good to get the ball rolling."
'Lasts on the planet forever'
In addition to local restaurants, Levine is also working with her peers to help them make their own difference in the community.
She started a sustainability club at University High School that meets every Wednesday during lunch. The group has 10 members who regularly attend, but upwards of 40 members who Levine said "pop in and out."
"I'm having a bunch of students do their own work calling restaurants and seeing if they're interested," Levine said. "Our teacher sponsor is friends with someone who was integral in implementing the plastic ban in Orange County."
Trish Wheeler, who teaches environmental sciences at UHS, was happy to oversee the club when she was approached by Levine.
Although Levine didn't take Wheeler's class, which is now mandatory for all UHS freshmen, the teen realized on her own the greater impact of single-use plastics and other disposable goods, Wheeler said.
"Aiko is definitely a very forward-thinking young person," Wheeler said. "On her own, she realized it made a difference to try to encourage people to use sustainable to-go ware. And now she has a whole group of students that equally recognize that with disposable ware, you use it once but it lasts on the planet forever."
Levine recognized how many of her peers arrived to school in the mornings with Dutch Bros Coffee drinks in plastic cups with plastic straws and decided to appeal to the masses, Wheeler said.
When Levine first approached Wheeler about the club, the idea was to motivate members to go out to eat and talk to business owners and managers about sustainable goods. She hosted a presentation for members and created a spreadsheet for students to keep track of who is handling each restaurant on the list.
While the idea was solid, the students struggled at first, Wheeler said.
"They heard from a lot of places that they already had a contract and there were other obstacles," she said. "They went through a phase where they were just really sad and constantly being told 'no' all the time."
The students quickly learned that not every place is gong to recognize or take ownership of the cause in the same way they had, which was difficult for the group of high achievers who aren't used to that kind of disappointment, Wheeler said.
University of Arizona professor Kelly King stepped in to help the students revise their plan and create something more manageable. They reevaluated their objective and what they believed success should look like, Wheeler said, and continued to push forward.
"It was a good learning experience in resiliency," Wheeler said. "These are real world skills the kids are working at, considering systemic issues and ways to address them."
With every UHS freshman required to take environmental sciences, Wheeler is able to educate all incoming students about the ways in which humans affect the environment.
By reaching them during formative years, these messages stick with them, Wheeler said, and they start to think about what kind of difference they can and want to make in the world.
"I think once people catch on that people care about this, there will be more of a domino effect," Wheeler said. "And it really demonstrates the value of what young people are doing."
Collaborating with TUSD schools
Tucson Unified School District leaders seem to recognize that value. Officials are collaborating with Levine and Takeout Turnaround on a project that would reduce plastic waste throughout the district.
TUSD has received a grant to help it transition to more sustainable materials, and is planning to replace the Styrofoam trays used for school lunches with paper trays and more eco-friendly containers.
With more than 40,000 students in the district, the potential impact is huge. Takeout Turnaround will help to test materials and implement changes in schools throughout the district.
University High School's sustainability club is also working with TUSD to create a composting system for the new lunch materials while they continue discussions with local restaurants.
"We're now asking restaurants if they'd consider not giving out plastic utensils unless they're asked," Levine said.
Only about 1% of plastic ends up being recycled, she said, "and it's still adding to the amount of plastic on the planet even if it's getting recycled."
Levine hopes that as restaurants make these changes, others will want to jump on the bandwagon. That's why it's so important to draw attention to the restaurants trying to be greener, she said.
"I definitely think people are starting to make an effort, but I think the mindset for many people is, 'There's nothing I can do,'" Levine said. "But hopefully this is something that people will realize is a group effort."
How to get involved
To learn more about Takeout Turnaround, visit their website.
If you know of a Tucson restaurant that is using sustainable goods, email firstname.lastname@example.org to have its name added to Takeout Turnaround's website.