What is keeping businesses in the GTA from ditching single-use foodware?

Reflection on what we learned interviewing food service businesses in Toronto during the pandemic.

The City of Toronto has been developing a Single-Use and Takeaway Items Reduction Strategy since 2018 to address non-recyclable single-use items made of plastic and other materials. In June 2021, Toronto’s City Council approved the first phase of the Single-Use Reduction Strategy encouraging businesses to voluntarily implement actions to reduce single-use items. The City is now preparing to implement the Voluntary Measures Program to provide support for small businesses. Proposed regulations would require that food service establishments ‘ask first’ before providing single-use accessories such as utensils, straws, and stirrers as well as condiments, napkins, and cup sleeves. Regulations would also require businesses to charge mandatory fees for single-use hot and cold drink cups, and single-use and reusable shopping bags.

For this reason, and because the U of T Trash Team is committed to plastic waste reduction, researching single-use plastic practices and initiatives in the Greater Toronto Area was a natural choice. Throughout the second semester of 2021, the University of Toronto Trash Team in partnership with the Toronto Environmental Alliance gathered insights from Toronto-based food businesses about their experiences in reducing single-use foodware and switching to reusable alternatives. The study rationale, methodology, and a full report of the findings are publicly available on our website. The report is meant to inform municipal governments on how regulations and restrictions on single-use plastics present an important opportunity to address plastic pollution.

As U of T Trash Team volunteers, we want to share why we decided to participate in this project and what we learned from this experience.

Christina: As a food lover, I love the fact that Toronto offers an enormous variety of easily accessible cuisine. During the pandemic, this convenience persisted, and as many of us showed our support for local restaurants, food delivery companies thrived. However, after ordering quick and delicious take-out meals, I soon noticed how much waste I was producing. My mother and I enjoyed our first paella during this time, and while the food was terrific, it left us with a dirty styrofoam box, soiled Clingwarps and wrinkled plastic bags. After finishing this meal, I had a moment of guilt as I remembered what my ecology professor had said about the harm of plastic pollution and how difficult it is for some items to get recycled. Taking courses that discuss plastic pollution made me more aware of the impacts I have on the environment. It also helped me adjust my daily habits and strive to make more environmentally friendly choices.

Plastic pollution has become one of those urgent global issues that will require the action of many, from individuals to governments and industry. I volunteered with the single-use foodware research because I wanted to learn more about how businesses can help to reduce plastic waste and understand what barriers they face when building plastic reduction initiatives. From this experience, I realized that cafes and restaurants wished the customers would bring their own reusable containers, a simple act that would help restaurant owners save on the cost of purchasing single-use packaging. However, some restaurant staff are also concerned about losing customers if they stop offering single-use foodware because they feel the loss of convenience may deter customers.

As you might have realized from reading the report, the phasing out of single-use foodware has a simple goal but a complicated future. It seems to me until more waste reduction initiatives are running, the solution is left primarily up to the consumers.

Marcia: Ever since I read the book ‘The Recycling Myth’ in 2016 I started to realize how easily waste is generated and how hard it is to close the loop to reuse those valuable resources again and again. Sometimes it is because the material loses quality during the recycling process. Other times, it is because there isn’t a market for a particular material (e.g., styrofoam is recyclable only in some regions), and other times because it is disposed of improperly. In the end, the problem is the same: we are sending valuable and long-lasting materials to landfills after one single use.

On a day-to-day basis, I try to avoid ordering takeout food mainly due to the excessive waste that is generated with it but also because going physically to a restaurant is also part of the experience. However, it is very often that I find businesses that use disposable foodware regardless of the type of order [“for here or to go?”]. That is why I eagerly joined this research project with the U of T Trash Team. I wanted to understand why it was so hard for businesses to get rid of disposable foodware and how the City and the customers could help them accelerate the transition to reusable foodware. The main challenge we found during this project was that, due to the pandemic, we had to reach out to the businesses via phone and email, which made it harder to get through and get their feedback. Naturally, since dine-in was not available in Toronto, these businesses depended on the phone line being open for orders, and they couldn’t risk losing orders due to phone interviews.

Fortunately, it was possible to chat with multiple businesses and understand what type of actions they had already taken toward reducing their waste generation and what other incentives the City could offer to continue helping these types of initiatives among restaurant/cafe owners and employees. There is still a long way to go if we are to effectively avoid the use of various single-use plastics by 2023, but we saw that businesses are willing to make changes if customers are on the same page.

Through asking the businesses about their practices with single-use foodware, we learned that the choice of consumers plays a significant role in reducing single-use foodware. The next time you go out for food, we recommend bringing your reusable containers and utensils. Using your reusable foodware will support both local businesses and the environment. If you are interested in knowing more about the impact of plastic pollution or you feel inspired to help, be sure to check out the U of T Trash Team.

Written by Marcia Pedroza Brambila and Ronglan Cao (Christina) who thank the U of T Trash Team and TEA for inspiring community members to engage in plastic pollution education programs.

Marcia Pedroza graduated in 2021 from MASc in Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto. While at U of T, she researched the influence of the combustion conditions on the toxicity of the particles emitted from wood burning. Currently working as Senior Decarbonization Analyst at Canadian Tire Corporation. 

Christina Ronglan is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at the University of Toronto studying Environment and Toxicology.

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