Kayli Dale and Jacquie Hutchings, both chemical engineers, launched Friendlier in 2019 while studying at the University of Waterloo.
Dale said their goal was "to create the biggest sustainability impact" possible, and after noticing that Canada was lagging behind in reusable plastics – especially compared to Europe – decided to focus there.
Friendlier's business-model was inspired by rugby fans in England, where Hutchins saw people lining up after a match to get a refund on the deposit they paid for a plastic beer cup.
The company provides partner businesses – mainly restaurants, cafes and shops – with containers that include a QR code.
Customers are asked to pay a deposit between 50 cents to $1 for a Friendlier takeout container, money they get back after scanning the QR code and throwing the container out in a designated Friendlier bin.
It may seem cumbersome, but Dale says there has been a "spike" in interest since the federal government announced in June that it would ban the use of most single-use plastics, including cutlery and foodservice ware by the end of 2023.
"Brands were already looking for sustainable alternatives, but (the federal deadline) helped expedite the process and ensure it was top of mind for them,'' she said.
The company has also drawn attention from Forbes magazine, which listed Dale and Hutchings among their top "30 under 30'" for "leveraging business smarts to save the world."
Emily J. Alfred of the Toronto Environmental Alliance voiced support for Friendlier's model, saying reusable plastics, are "always better for the environment than recycling."
"The longer we keep a product in use, the lower footprint it has every time we use it,'' she said, adding that recycling may curb the environmental impact of plastics, but that the huge energy costs of the recycling process remain an issue.
And she agreed that the new federal regulations would be "critical'' to help push businesses towards reusable plastics.
"I think a lot of people talk about sustainability, but the regulation is the thing that is going to push a lot of them to do it,'' she said. "It is not always the main reason people do it, but it might be the final nudge that gets them to get on with it right now.''
Dale says Friendlier now has more than 200 partner businesses across Ontario, including major players like Scotiabank and Loblaws, and that the company has already helped divert more than 400,000 plastic containers from landfills.
Scotiabank's vice president of operations, Bob Berube, said it has Friendlier containers at four locations with cafeteria spaces and that it plans to expand the partnership.
"We determined that was a great way forward," he said.
"By the end of this year all of our locations will have transitioned to use Friendlier for all of our takeout containers.''
Grocery giant Loblaws, which has been working on a pilot project with Friendlier since the summer, wrote in a statement that the company "has the potential to help us reduce our reliance on single-use plastics in our grocery stores.''
Friendlier also serves smaller businesses, like Ottawa's Red Apron cafe, which says the company has washed and returned about 70,000 containers over the past year.
Using Friendlier's containers has proven more expensive for Red Apron, according to co-owner Jennifer Heagle.
But, she said, businesses will ultimately have no choice but to embrace reusable plastics, and Red Apron wanted to be ahead of the curve.
"I don't think that disposable packaging is going to be an option for us as a society,'' she said.
Beyond promoting reusable plastics, Friendlier has also offered a boost to some Ontario charities.
Inevitably, some customers never actually scan the code and return their container to a designated bin, meaning the small deposit remains in the restaurant or cafe's Friendlier account.
Red Apron said it had donated $12,000 of those unclaimed funds to Ottawa charities over the past year.