The Foodservice Industry is Rallying to Tackle Single-Use Plastics

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Lil MacPherson wasn’t at home when Hurricane Juan hit Atlantic Canada in late September 2003, but while on a flight over Halifax the next day, she looked at the devastation below and fell quiet, like everyone else on her flight. It stayed quiet for MacPherson, among the almost one million people who lost power in that Category-2 storm — until the lights came on. Then she made some noise.

All told, Juan wrecked a hundred-million trees — such destruction they retired the name from the World Meteorological Organization’s list. But its devastation hit MacPherson most squarely in a realization of her remote province’s dependence on others for its food supply — and the call to redress it without plastics.

“It was an awful business model,” she said. “We were sitting ducks.” So, this self-declared “hardcore environmentalist” took flight and opened a restaurant that would not only help build up Nova Scotia’s food system, but do it in a way that was always kind to the earth. There are no plastics at Wooden Monkey, MacPherson’s rustic farm-to-table invention in Halifax and Dartmouth, nor has there ever been.

It’s a popular perspective, this plastic-free one, and MacPherson’s restaurant joins a great wave of Canadian foodservice operators in embracing it. They’re reacting to the way their on-premise sales are losing share to takeout and delivery and the commensurate call to find alternative solutions to package all that mobile food — solutions that both reduce environmental impact and meet consumer need. Their efforts are reflective of a general consciousness in this dawning decade.

Still, for all its goodwill, the impulse is in peril of drowning in a surfeit of enthusiasm, which surges without the proper channels to direct it.

But first, the good news.

The plastic problem has attracted our attention — at last. For the past two years, eight out of 10 respondents to Restaurants Canada’s Restaurant Outlook Survey have said environmental sustainability is important to their success and most say they plan to continue or improve upon an investment in environmentally sustainable operations over the next three years. By 2025, for example, McDonald’s says 100 per cent of its packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources. It has committed to recycle guest packaging in 100 per cent of its restaurants. Last year, McDonald’s Canada announced two “green-concept restaurants” that would act as incubators for testing new packaging options and recycling initiatives. In 2019, KFC Canada removed all plastic straws and plastic bags from its restaurants — 60 million plastic straws and 10 million plastic bags. And it’s testing bamboo fibre for its most iconic packaging — the bucket — this year, to ensure it has integrity and consumer experience, but also environmental impact.

The CFIB’s (Canadian Federation of Independent Business) recently completed Small Business Perspective on Single-Use Plastic Bans survey, undertaken to poll the opinion of its 110,000 members, also uncovered evidence of commitment. About two-thirds of the hospitality component of the membership said they would be impacted by a plastic ban and about 55- per-cent said they supported the practice.

The plastic ban in question is the Canadian government’s kick at this can. It took a swing at the end of January with a commitment to veto single-use plastics, hopefully by the end of next year. It was a grand and sweeping announcement that will “likely” include plastic bags, forks and straws and everyone in the takeout scene took notice.

The feds’ draft science assessment of plastic pollution — undertaken to summarize the science around plastic pollutions’ potential impacts on the environment and human health and inform research and decision-making going forward — found an estimated one per cent of plastic produced in this country is dumped into the environment. Most of it swims in fresh water in the form of plastic bags, straws, bottle caps and bottles. Unacceptable, said the report, and Canada’s current practice for disposing of it is causing unacceptable harm.
Which brings us to the bad news.

A TRASH SYSTEM THAT’,S TRASH
First off, our infrastructure is a problem. Broadly speaking, restaurants’ investments in biodegradable containers, made in the faith their effort will ensure the packaging will break down in the regular waste stream, could hit impediment before fruition. In fact, many plant-based products end up in the garbage alongside Styrofoam and plastic. Even aluminum and glass aren’t getting recycled all the time. Municipal waste-disposal setups are famously ill-prepared to receive waste that’s been divided into nuanced categories, utterly incapable of seeing through the biodegradable promise operators made, frustrating their efforts to invest in revised packaging and putting future exertions in peril.

That cities aren’t keeping up is upsetting, says MacPherson, especially given the explosion of activity at the other end. She’s attended three UN climate-change conferences and always returns from them inspired by the innovation that can’t seem to find a meaningful home in our waste systems. “You’ve seen this coming — you should’ve prepared for it,” she says. “We’re not paying attention fast enough. Technology always seems to beat the government.”

At Wooden Monkey, MacPherson is doing her part. “Everything on your plate, in your bowl or poured into your glass at the Wooden Monkey has been carefully considered,” a review in The Coast declares. After Hurricane Juan, MacPherson sold her house in the city and bought a farm. Rather than deliver her greens from there to the restaurant in plastic bags like everyone else, she invested in food-grade reusable containers. Her takeout cutlery and to-go packaging and lids are biodegradable thermal plastic, made from cornstarch or sugar cane. MacPherson is mindful of where they’ll end up. She asks customers looking for takeout to pay a quarter to offset the cost of seeing to it that they’re properly disposed. “The city needs to catch up with industry,” she says. “Here I am spending extra money trying to go green and we don’t have the facility to compost these items. It’s crazy.”

Tim Hortons has put a toe into the water, recently partnering with Return-It to pilot British Columbia’s first initiative to recycle coffee cups in commercial and public buildings. The pilot, says a spokesperson, will give the company an opportunity “to evaluate a publicly accessible hot-coffee-cup recycling program and determine if this initiative could be rolled out on a wider scale.” Last year, the company launched newly redesigned hot- and cold-cup lids made with polypropylene, a material that’s 100-per-cent recyclable and accepted in 95 per cent of curbside recycling programs across Canada. The strawless, cold-cup lid will remove 120-million straws from Tim Hortons’ network each year and use 15-per-cent less plastic than the previous lid and straw. This year, the brand is rolling out wooden stir sticks that will remove 186-million plastic stir sticks from the Tim Hortons network each year.

GOOD ALTERNATIVES THAT ARE GOOD
Which brings us to the next problem: finding alternatives that are as good for the earth’s bottom line as they are for the restaurants. When Kyle Webster launched Farm’r Eatery, a healthy fast-casual restaurant in Toronto in 2017, it was done with a plan to steer clear of plastics. Surely, he thought, his operation could find affordable, functional stand-ins for plastic precursors in an industry that’s had so many of them. He couldn’t. His good intention was met with not only an unevolved waste system that abandoned operators’ best efforts mid-flight, but packaging “alternatives” whose price tag was too rich to pass along to the customers.

For its takeout containers, Farm’r Eatery experimented with packaging made of wheat straw, pulp and sugarcane, but found them uniformly inadequate. They were either not up to the task of containing hot food — such as the restaurant’s famous braised-turkey meatballs in classic tomato sauce — without going soggy or too expensive to be folded into operations that were already working on a wire.

“Innovation takes time,” says CFIB executive president, Laura Jones. And while reasonable alternatives that duplicate plastic’s functionality can intermittently be found, they’re often too expensive in an industry where margins are already paper thin, especially in the second year of five Candian Pension Plan increases and various spiking provincial and local health taxes.

Webster’s response while he’s waiting? A reusable container program that sees returning customers exchanging empty takeaway vessels for refills of dishes such as seasonal soups and Market Mac & Cheese. The initiative, which currently oversees the benevolent exchange of about 70 high-grade plastic containers, sidesteps the call for an efficacious substitute — or at least delays it until the innovators catch up.

For now, Webster’s reusable containers account for just a fraction of all the restaurant’s takeout containers — it still uses plastics for its takeout. “It’s very challenging to run a food business at this point in time in our space and not use plastic,” he defends. But he’s proud of his project, mostly for the awareness it’s generated. Thanks to it, like-minded restaurateurs have reached out for advice on launching their own reusable-container initiative. That pleases Webster, who always knew it had to be a bigger project to make a difference.

At Tim Hortons, guests who bring in a reusable mug get a 10-cent discount on their beverage and have since 1978. More recently, another initiative is asking Toronto-area restaurant-goers to consider bringing their own containers to restaurants in much the same way they’re bringing their own bags to the supermarket. With Wisebox, consumers pay a $5 deposit on reusable takeout containers they can endlessly reuse at participating restaurants for subsequent meals. In all, 14 restaurants are partaking in the program, which was developed by Erika Reyes and Beth Szurpicki — the founders of Wisebird, a social-enterprise startup dedicated to helping community members reduce their carbon footprint. The four-month pilot launched February 21.

Nivera Wallani, president and general manager of KFC Canada, agrees success in this precious arena rests on community. She sits on various industry boards and plastics committees within them. In the meetings, industry leaders share reports of their successes and challenge each other to do better. “It becomes holistic, instead of brand by brand,” Wallani says. “We need to rally together as an industry to tackle sustainability as a collective. We’ll have a larger impact [thanks to] the openness of those conversations, the collaboration.”

“Heavy-handed government regulation is not the way to go,” says Jones, adding rather than retreat behind closed doors to make decisions that are then broadly announced, the government needs to consider details at a practical level and stay in close contact with the organizations that’ll be most affected by them. “People are willing to change,” says Jones, “but it has to be workable.” That means listening to affected parties and being vocal about alternatives.

Environmental issues are complicated, she says, and some restaurant packaging may be less environmentally destructive to dispose of, but more environmentally destructive or expensive to produce. “We’ve seen instances where we might feel good about doing something but it’s actually not doing good.”

Associations such as the CFIB might have a role to play in distributing information, but she feels it’s important the federal government release more details about the ban — and do it with a long enough runway that operators can offer feedback and the ban can be modified accordingly. That the people in its spotlight are given an opportunity to participate in its evolution, Jones says, is critical — both for optics and reality.

But she’s hopeful about hospitality’s endurance in a plastic-free future. Social norms are changing, she says, with or without sanctioned government endeavours. In another recent CFIB survey, 75 per cent of respondents said they’d already taken some kind of action in the last several years to get greener. And here’s the best part: when asked why, they didn’t say it was because the government was holding a big stick over them to do so. The number-1 reason for their earth-friendly efforts? They believe in them.

Written by Laura Pratt

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