Long Story Short: Crystal Dreisbach

Long Story Short is a video series that celebrates the creative, ambitious, and forward-thinking people who are making North Carolina a better place. In 120 seconds or less, we show how fledgling ideas became thriving movements. Nominate someone for Long Story Short.

As the founder of Don’t Waste Durham, Crystal Dreisbach has a clear goal: reduce waste in Bull City. GreenToGo, their reusable takeout container program that launched a few weeks ago, was recognized by Fast Company as among the 50 most promising innovations in the country. “GreenToGo is just our foot in the door,” Dreisbach says. “The infrastructure we’re building is creating a means for all things to be reusable.”

We sat down with Crystal to learn how Don’t Waste Durham began.

Walk us through the story of how this all started.

I have a background in public health, and one thing that really kept me up at night was the fact that styrofoam is bad for people and the earth—we know this from the multitude of research evidence available—and yet we continue to use it. It just flabbergasted me. I started writing letters to the restaurants that I loved, very diplomatic letters, and explained this and asked them to make a change.

I realized that writing letters sometimes has no effect, but for me it was such an important personal action to take, to feel like at least I was doing something. If I had time for nothing else, I could at least write a letter. 

The letters were a little bit like this:

Dear restaurant that I love,

I enjoy eating at your restaurant so much, and I noticed that you use styrofoam takeout containers. You may not be aware, but styrofoam is bad for people’s health. I’m hoping that maybe you’ll consider speaking with your distributor and seeing if there’s a compostable or recyclable alternative. I would be even more proud to eat at your restaurant I would tell everyone I know if you made that switch.


Happy customer Crystal Dreisbach

It was about two or three years of writing about 250 letters that I would personalize and fold up and put in envelopes and address by hand and stamp and send off.

One day, I received an email response from the owner of Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, and I was so excited. I’d never received any response before. He basically said:

Crystal, we’ve been thinking about switching from polystyrene foam box to a compostable box, but it was really your letter that pushed us to do it. Thank you so much.

Of course, I was over the moon. I was overjoyed that my letter-writing had created some effect. At that point, I had a renewed feeling of hope and sense that things could change and things could be different. I immediately thought, I want to take this to the next level. I want to get rid of styrofoam in Durham.

What happened after you decided you wanted to ban styrofoam in Durham?

I contacted my political mentor and asked her, “If I wanted to try a citywide ban on polystyrene foam takeout containers, what would I do first?” She advised me to approach the Environmental Affairs Board, the EAB, which is a citizen advisory group to advise the City Council and the county commissioners on environmental issues.

Crystal Dreisbach in Downtown Durham
Model (citizen): Crystal in downtown Durham, holding a travel mug with a Don’t Waste Durham “Make Love, Not Trash” sticker

I prepared a PowerPoint presentation and a one-page policy brief, which I was very proud of and researched thoroughly, and I presented it to the EAB. And they said, “Would it be OK if we tried to add plastic bags to the styrofoam ban as well?” I said, “Even better.”

They asked me to draft the city ordinance against polystyrene foam and plastic bags. I’d been reading all of the bans from all around the country, so I knew I could take the best of the best and adapt one for Durham. 

The EAB then showed the draft to the legal staff to make sure the language was correct before we passed it on to the City Council and county commissioners to potentially vote on. We really thought we were almost there.

But the legal council came back and told us that North Carolina has something called Dillon’s Rule. It basically gives enormous power to the state legislature over municipalities, which means that if you try to ban something at the municipal level, you have to first have the permission of the state legislature.

Of course, our state legislature at the moment is pretty conservative and is tied up in the plastics industry and petroleum. It would probably not sign off on a ban on polystyrene foam and plastic bags in Durham.

But we decided not to give up. There are many ways to tackle this problem other than the policy level. We realized we could go grassroots, we could raise consumer awareness, we could help the businesses make the switch, we could do lots of other things creatively without having to go top-down.

We decided to put the policy strategy on hold, and that’s when Don’t Waste Durham was born.

How did your childhood shape the way you approach challenges?

I had a unique childhood. I’m the product of a Vietnamese immigrant, first generation, and traveling one-man band.

Crystal's dad playing the keyboard
Crystal’s dad

We moved constantly, and my mom, of course, had to figure out how to raise kids in a different country. When I was a kid, I had no idea how hard that was, but looking back, I can see that it’s not easy being a parent, and it’s doubly hard being an immigrant parent.

Crystal with her mom and grandmother
Crystal at her high school graduation

I think my childhood shaped me to become a really adaptive person and someone who doesn’t give up. I absolutely am attracted to taking action—not action without consideration, because I do love working with people and building consensus and figuring out what are the biggest needs, where is the biggest impact we can make, and how do we avoid reinventing the wheel or duplicating efforts .

When the Dylan’s Rule barrier came up, I knew I really wanted to get together with other people and figure out creative ways to get around this roadblock.

How would you describe Don’t Waste Durham?

Don’t Waste Durham is a group of Durhamites who work together to reduce the amount of waste that’s going to the landfill in Durham. Basically, we want to eliminate trash or prevent trash.

I love working with people, and I love talking about problems and solving them. I wanted Don’t Waste Durham to be really unique in that we don’t just sit around and talk about problems—we actually figure out what we can do to address the problems. Then we take action.

It’s one thing to sit around and talk all day, but I think that would drive me nuts. I really think there’s a huge yearning for taking action in our community.

People are super drawn to Don’t Waste Durham. They come to a meeting, and they’re like, “Wow.” We actually sit around and come up with solutions and then figure out who can help implement them. It’s an action-oriented group.

We’re really really lucky right now, because the membership has grown. We’re a coalition, really, of small businesses, nonprofits, universities, local government agencies, the faith community, environmental artists, concerned citizens, and when we take action we do it as a coalition. It’s very powerful. We can say, “Don’t Waste Durham recommends this,” and that means a lot. We’re a coalition of people who’ve come to a consensus about an issue.

What are you working on right now?

One of our big programs is GreenToGo, which is a reusable takeout container program. We know from our own data that downtown Durham alone has 75 restaurants, and those 75 restaurants produce 10,000 takeout containers that go to the landfill every month. That’s equivalent to half a ton of trash every month, just from the restaurants in the downtown area.

If we’re to get enough restaurants on board, we can make a huge difference in how much trash is trucked to Sampson County landfill every day and really have some positive benefits in our environment and our local economy.

We also have the sustainable food truck certification program. As far as we know, it’s the first of its kind in the entire world—no one else is certifying food trucks.

We saw this need from these giant food truck rodeos that are held four times a year in Durham Central Park. I usually volunteer as a waste warrior, which means I wear an orange vest and hold a garbage picker and literally stand and protect the weigh station with my body.

The natural inclination is for people to throw everything right into the trash bin, but, of course, they might not know that aluminum foil can be recycled, certain plastic cups are recyclable, and the food scraps and cardboard and paper napkins can go to the compost.

As a waste warrior, you’re really on the frontlines of consumer education. It got me thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we took a step back from that and start with the food trucks and what they’re supplying to the customers? If we could work with the food trucks and find a way for it to be very attractive to go sustainable, then what the customers bring to the weigh stations is automatically going to change.

The certification program has 18 requirements that food trucks have to meet, and we help them meet those requirements. They’re awarded with a really nice sticker for their truck and a certificate. They get lots of priority access to event gigs and lots of publicity. So far, the Durham community has really responded positively, and it’s really taking off.

One other thing I’d love to mention is the lunch tray initiative in Durham public schools. Probably for the last three years, we’ve lobbied for Durham public schools to switch from styrofoam lunch trays to a compostable lunch tray.

Every kid in every school every day had been eating hot lunch on a styrofoam disposable tray. You can imagine the impact that has on the landfill. We really wanted not only for the benefit of the kids who are eating off this chemical-laden tray but also for the benefit of our environment.

Recently, in a great success story, our public schools have announced that starting this school year they will be providing all Durham public schools with compostable lunch trays. The catch is that they are not able to provide the funds for composting pickup.

So to mitigate that, Don’t Waste Durham is helping to “matchmake” schools with restaurants that are willing to be that school’s composting sponsor. This allows PTAs to have the funds to pay for a composting pickup and transport to the composting facility so that we can complete that cycle.

Composting trays will get picked up and taken to a place that’ll turn them into nutrient-rich soil, which will then come back to the schools for the school gardens. It’s a model we’re very, very proud of.

What are you working toward?

I have a huge vision for the Durham community. A lot of people get bummed out about the way things currently are, but I only see problems waiting to be fixed. I have a lot of hope.

My vision includes people carrying their reusable cutlery holders everywhere they go—the bamboo cutlery, the stainless steel straw, and the fabric napkin—and they’re bringing their reusable water bottles everywhere, and through Don’t Waste Durham’s partnership with the City of Durham, we can provide municipal water filling stations all over town.

Part of our vision is to make Durham the reuse refill capital of the world, that we become leaders in sustainability for the world, and that we build the refill reuse revolution right here in our community.

GreenToGo is our foot in the door for the reuse revolution. I can tell you that the pizza restaurants of Durham, for example, can’t wait for a reusable pizza box. The cafes of Durham can’t wait to have reusable coffee cups.

The infrastructure we’re building for GreenToGo is creating a means for all things to be reusable. We’re creating return stations all over town that people can fit any size container of any type into, and we’ll come by and pick those up and take them to our commercial wash facility—also an infrastructure that does not yet exist but we are building—and that will create the means for reuse of all kinds

This single-use lifestyle is a way of the past. We really see the reuse revolution as the next thing, and I know that Durham can do it.

One last question: What do you love about Durham?

I could go on and on about why I love Durham, but in a nutshell I think it is the people who fiercely love the community and want to make it better—my kind of people. We want to sit down and figure out the problems and figure out the solutions and implement them. It’s just my kind of town.

Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.