6 things Toronto can do to ditch single-use plastics and move towards a waste-free future

At TEA, we’re thinking about what we can do as a city, and how we can use our strength as a community, to ban the worst single-use plastics for good! But since substituting single-use plastic with another disposable product doesn't go far enough, we want to promote a vision that includes more than bans, and shifts Toronto to reusables and other truly waste-free solutions.

In Toronto, single-use plastic packaging from the take-out food industry - like black plastic, cutlery and coffee cups - is wreaking havoc in our recycling system and ending up as litter. The good news is that our City Council has the power to pass laws to reduce take-out and restaurant packaging. 

Here is our list of 6 things Toronto should do to ditch single-use plastics and move towards a waste-free future.

1. Bans to eliminate certain types of single-use plastics in Toronto

Encouraging companies to voluntarily change their packaging, and encouraging people to change their behaviour, simply isn’t enough to address the scale of the plastic pollution problem. The problem requires urgent action, and that means we need our governments to pass rules to force everyone to act now. This is why the European Union has agreed to ban the top 10 most harmful and problem plastics by 2021, and other nations around the world have passed laws to restrict plastic bags, styrofoam, stir-sticks, and straws.

Last year the City of Toronto asked residents and businesses what single-use items the City should consider for bans. Of the 20,000 that took the City survey, the majority wanted action on the worst materials: unrecyclable black plastic, plastic shopping bags and styrofoam.

The City of Toronto can pass by-laws for stores and restaurants to prohibit them from giving out certain single-use items, including plastics.  

2. Rules to require businesses to use reusable dishes when customers are "eating in"

Too many quick-service restaurants default to using disposable cups, single-use dishes and cutlery even when customers sit down to ‘eat-in’ at the restaurant. The City of Berkeley, California, recently passed a by-law that will require all restaurants to have reusable dishes for eat-in meals in 2020. This will dramatically reduce waste, and case studies show that it can lower costs for restaurants! 

Toronto already has some great examples of places making the switch to reusable foodware, from school cafeterias to restaurants to fast food courts at the Eaton Centre and Yorkdale Mall. Yorkdale Mall’s food court was generating an average of 120 bags of garbage every day, but since switching to reusables, that's dropped to just 3!

The City of Toronto could use regulations to require that in the future, all restaurants use reusable dishes. The City can also provide support for small businesses to make the transition. 

3. Programs to promote “bring your own” containers for take-out food

Getting a coffee or take-out meal doesn’t have to mean also getting a pile of containers and plastic waste. Hungry customers can bring their own reusable coffee cups, water bottles, food containers and cutlery to eliminate waste.

Grassroots groups in Toronto like Roncy Reduces are talking with businesses in their neighbourhood to find those that welcome customers to bring their own container and identify them with a window sticker. Many coffee shops, including major chains, already offer a discount for customers that bring their own travel cup.

To increase businesses that allow "bring your own" containers, the City can provide information and support for businesses to understand the public health regulations and best practices.

4. Programs like “deposit-return” refillable containers for businesses serving take-out food

When customers don’t have time to sit down and didn’t bring their own containers, there's still a way that take-out can be waste-free: restaurants and coffee shops can provide reusable take-out containers that customers can buy, borrow or rent. 

La Tasse in Montreal, reCIRCLE in Switzerland and other systems like the GoBox in Portland allow customers to get their food or drink in a standard reusable cup or container at participating restaurants. Customers can return the dirty container at a dropbox for a deposit refund and these get cleaned and returned to restaurants. Leading restaurants in Toronto are already doing something similar with deposits on juice jars or food containers for their customers. 

To scale this up, the City could support refillable container programs and run pilot tests in different regions of the city. 

5. Rules and programs to reduce single-use plastics at events and festivals

At local events like Withrow Park Farmers' Market and Sorauraren Farmers' Market, vendors serve food and drinks in reusable dishes that market volunteers collect and wash. But Toronto has thousands of vibrant and exciting festivals and events every year, and City support could help eliminate waste from these events, too. 

The City could set waste management requirements for special events and provide support for organizers to find zero waste food services. (Currently, festival organizers can use the City's waste management guide for ideas to reduce waste).

6. Leadership in City of Toronto facilities 

We need our City government to show leadership by eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics in City-owned buildings and operations such as community centres, civic centre cafeterias, and childcare centres. As the City is one of the biggest purchasers of goods and services in Ontario, this will not only provide a chance to demonstrate solutions and prove what is possible, but it would help stimulate the market for reusable solutions and services in Toronto.

The City of Markham has a zero-waste policy for food and catering services that favours reusable dishes and utensils and prohibits unrecyclable materials and problem items like styrofoam, plastic stir sticks, and condiments packages. 

TEA has been urging Council to take a leadership role and reduce waste in City operations for a number of years. In spring 2019, Council agreed and directed staff to reduce single-use plastic in City facilities. We’ll be watching closely to see that it keeps moving forward quickly!

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Single use and take-out packaging is a serious waste problem, but the good news is that our City Council has the power to do something about it. Council is seriously looking into what it can do to reduce and eliminate single-use and take-out items, and in the coming months, they'll be considering the options.  

TEA is ramping up a campaign to ban the worst single-use items in Toronto. To ensure bans don't simply lead to substitution with another disposable, we'll be pushing further, and promoting a vision of truly waste-free city.  

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