Will the idea of reusable takeout containers take off? A pilot project aims to reduce single-use packaging at restaurants

When many restaurants pivoted from a dine-in formula to selling takeout food just to survive the shutdown, lots of Montrealers -- tired of cooking and in need of distraction -- started scrolling through online menus in a hurry.

That proved to be a boon for Christian Manuel Ventura’s business, who said he decided to open the takeout counter seven days a week instead of five at one of his three restaurants, Momo, where he prepared roll after roll of vegan sushi.

“So, for the past year, I didn’t have any days off, to be honest,” the chef and entrepreneur said, musing that “when COVID is over, I might take a vacation!”

But as worthwhile as his efforts were at safeguarding the future of his employees and his restaurants, he was also disturbed by the collateral damage of all that disposable takeout packaging.

“Boy, it's sad. It's sad to see so much waste everywhere...it’s a big problem. I hope we find a solution,” he said.

“We tried to do everything that was as eco-friendly as possible,” Ventura said. He uses more expensive compostable containers, recycles as much as he can - he even composts the restaurants’ organic waste, “which very few restaurants do,” he said.

But the busy businessman, who doesn’t own a car and instead cycles to get from one workplace to another, thinks he could do better.

At least, he wants to try, he said.

So, when Mishel Wong, a salesperson on a mission came knocking on his St. Denis restaurant door, he listened to her pitch, and quickly opted-in to a pilot project that will see him offering customers the choice to take home their takeout food, in a reusable box or bowl.

He described it as a project that fits with his “values.”

THE LARGER INITIATIVE

The reusable container project that Ventura signed up for -- called Bo -- is just one of several initiatives that are expected to go ahead sometime this year.

In May the city of Montreal and the Quebec government awarded the not-for-profit environment group La Vague about $96,000 to work with them to encourage the restaurant and food industry to reduce their dependence on single-use containers.

La Vague hired an external team to help participants to collaborate and also to complete an environmental audit along the way -- so they will have some data about what concepts and containers make the most green-sense.

“There is not one single reusable container or one single wonderful app that is going to solve the disposable problem, so we need a variety of solutions,” the group’s co-founder Aurore Courtieux-Boinot.

“We still live in a linear economy, where the way you make money is by producing and using, and throwing away. The reusable economy,” also known as the circular economy, is still new, she said.

She added “it won’t be easy” to change people’s habits, so “we have to push,” to make it happen.

THE ‘BO’ CONCEPT

The Bo pilot project will launch this fall in Le-Plateau-Mont-Royal and Mile-End.

Here’s how it’s expected to work: the takeout food customer will need to download the Bo app. They choose a participating restaurant, opt for reusable containers, and provide the restaurant with their Bo identification number.

Wong explained the only cost to the customer is they have to make the effort to return them.

“Accumulating whatever Bos you've eaten out of, rinsing them and then you have to at some point make one trip at least, in 14 days, to return the bins.

She says there will be a good number of drop-off sites in the targeted neighbourhoods.

“We return the inventory to the merchants already cleaned, ready to go-” and reuse.”

The restaurant owners will have to pay stocking and refilling fees. Wong says she already has more than 60 businesses signed up.

Developed by Wong and a team of co-workers, the reusable Bo container concept was borne out of hardship when they were trying to devise a way to help keep her employer afloat.

The pandemic had shut down restaurants which in turn dried-up business at the commercial dishwashing supply company where they worked.

With no dishes to wash, she focused on what kinds of takeout containers they could provide.

“I'm a businessperson, I'm not an environmentalist. I am obsessed with creating value in a way that helps everybody,” Wong said.

“I essentially spent April of last year just researching the different types of formats and different types of materials -- what's available on the market.

As she spoke to restaurant owners, she began to “get a feel for people trying to be green within a budget,” and said she decided that reusable containers might be the way to go.

She settled on a series of boxes and bowls, purchased from an American company that she said fit the bill.

“Bo [containers] are made of polypropylene plastic, and those are designed to be washed 1000 times through a commercial dishwasher. It's heat resistant, it's microwave resistant, it's freezer resistant,” she said.

Wong says if all goes well, in the next phase of development they will invest in R&D to produce their own containers.

She says “we are in talks with a company that up-cycles the plastic into building material,” “after 1000 washes.

SINGLE USE PACKAGING

The true enormity of the problem of packaging waste has been hard to document, according to Canadian environment group Environmental Defence, which prepared a report last year entitled No Time to Waste, Six Ways Canada can progress to Zero Plastic Waste by 2025.

“Right now, the information available on waste in Canada is inconsistent, and often based on surveys, rather than on actual data collection,” the authors wrote.

They further concluded “we cannot reduce what is not measured.”

But the report does cite a European analysis that found that “worldwide, over 400 million tonnes of plastics are produced each year,” and that “packaging accounts for a third of all plastics produced,” and most of it is single-use.

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