Toronto neighbourhood shoots for plastic-free dining, drinking and takeout - National Observer

Canada's National Observer

By Abdul Matin Sarfraz

Walk into some cafés and restaurants in Toronto’s Queen Street East neighbourhood and you’ll see containers and cups marked with QR codes. Your server might be happy to explain why: the city’s first Zero Waste Zone, a pilot program to replace single-use plastics with reusable alternatives, now allows patrons to opt for reusable mugs and takeout containers instead of single-use plastics.

Canada is working to meet its target of zero plastic waste by 2030. By December, plastic checkout bags, cutlery, stir sticks, straws and food service ware will no longer be available for sale thanks to new federal regulations on single-use plastics.

In Toronto, the one-year Zero Waste Zone pilot, run by reusable food and beverage consultancy DreamZero, seeks to get ahead of that curve. The program is part of Toronto's Mainstreet Innovation Fund, which started last July

The zero-waste program is a partnership between the City of Toronto, DreamZero and Muuse, a reusable cup and container provider that operates an app to connect participating restaurants with willing customers, offering patrons the option to take food, drink and even groceries home in reusable containers, cups and boxes for free, which they can later return to 50 locations across Toronto.

Restaurants and cafés in the Zero Waste Zone are encouraged to sign up voluntarily through the Muuse app to offer customers reusable cups, containers and boxes.

“The cups are great, and the number of our customers is increasing. People are getting used to it and using it,” said Camilo Ortega, one of the owners of The Haven Low-Carb Cafe. “When we started using Muuse reusable cups and containers a few months ago, we had only one or two customers using reusables, but now we have an average of 10 customers every day using our reusable cups and containers.”

Ortega says the Zero Waste Zone reusable initiative helps the environment and creates community. Businesses can save money because they won’t need to purchase disposable items as frequently.

“This is a better option and alternative,” Ortega said. “Customers can see where they can return the reusables, and they can easily find their favourite café and restaurant in the area. So, it helps the environment, it saves money for the business and creates a community in Toronto,” he said.

Mariana Drok, manager at Boxcar Social Café on Queen Street East, told Canada’s National Observer that after the COVID-19 pandemic, people were wary about reusable containers and not inclined to participate. Now, environmentally conscious people come to the café looking for environmentally friendly options.

Drok said between 10 and 15 customers per day now use reusable cups and containers. “Which I feel after COVID, it is decent enough.”

The café advertises the program and the cups are on display, which makes people curious and prompts them to sign up, Drok said.

Customers can use their cameras to scan QR codes on the Muuse reusable items, which allows them to borrow a cup or container for up to 30 days. If they don’t return items within that time, they are charged $20. The fee encourages customers to bring reusable items back.

“I think the Zero Waste Zone reusable project is a very important and more environmentally friendly initiative. There is so much waste that we are producing daily and those paper cups, the lids and a lot of that stuff can’t be recycled,” Drok said.

Environmental advocates support the city's efforts to reduce single-use items, saying projects that support businesses to offer reusable takeout is a good way to help emerging green businesses.

“There are too many single-use, unrecyclable and unnecessary single-use items, and we need our governments to stop the flow of waste,” said Emily J. Alfred, waste campaigner at Toronto Environmental Alliance. “Businesses across the country are going to have to shift how they serve food and drink by December this year, and ... the city is also interested in reducing single-use food ware of all materials, not just plastic,” she said. The time is right for the city to support businesses and encourage zero-waste alternatives, she added.

A statement on the DreamZero website says the Zero Waste Zone project helps businesses greatly reduce single-use food and beverage packaging along a six-kilometre stretch of Queen Street East. Participating businesses receive free training, reusable packaging and access to tracking systems to ensure that items are returned with no charge to their customers.

Scott Morrison, co-founder and president of DreamZero, told Canada’s National Observer that based on the company’s survey, consumers and vendors favour stainless steel coffee cups over plastic ones by 90 per cent.

“Some consumers were concerned about products being trucked around the city to be washed. Ninety per cent of Muuse products are washed at the location they were returned to,” Morrison said. It is true that some vendors do not have high-heat dishwashers, so Muuse collects those cups and containers, washes them at the Muuse facility and returns them to the vendor.

Muuse is trying to cut down on the amount of driving and pickups to reduce cost and carbon emissions, he said.

Toronto city council approved the single-use and takeaway items reduction strategy in 2021, according to a statement on the city’s website. The city did not agree to an interview request.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

This article was reposted from Canada's National Observer This article first appeared in Canada's National Observer on Tuesday May 9th 2023