Councillors calling on restaurants to offer reusable items instead of plastic cutlery, plates

It’s a pretty typical experience: You order at a fast food outlet, scarf down your purchase in under 10 minutes, then toss all the barely-used packaging and utensils in the trash, even though your quick meal was “for here,” not “to go.”

Now two Toronto councillors want to change that by pushing the city’s restaurants to start providing reusable cutlery and plates to reduce the amount of single-use plastics heading to the dump.

In a member motion heading to city council this week, Coun. Jaye Robinson and Coun. Brad Bradford are calling on council to back the city doing research into the feasibility of a new requirement for restaurants to provide reusable serviceware for eat-in customers.

“This is a pressing problem,” Robinson told CBC Toronto.

The pair’s motion notes up to 30 per cent of items collected in blue boxes wind up in landfills, according to a provincial report. Researchers also estimate that 10,000 metric tons of plastic and microplastic enters the Great Lakes every year, the report continues.

Robinson said a similar effort to her motion was adopted by the city council in Berkeley, Calif., which requires all businesses to use reusable serviceware by mid-2020.

“We’re really happy to hear councillors are looking into this,” said Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner from local advocacy group the Toronto Environmental Alliance. “There are a lot of times when we’re using disposable or single-use products when it’s really not necessary … Unfortunately, a lot of them are not recyclable.”

Amid the growing concerns over the impact of plastic pollution, sweeping changes have already been taking place in the restaurant industry in recent years.

Outlets around the world have started phasing out plastic drinking straws, for instance, with American coffee giant Starbucks vowing to swap plastic straws for biodegradable ones, or specially-designed drinking lids, by 2020.

And in Toronto, Farm’r restaurant on The Esplanade has been a leader in pushing reusable containers, as CBC Toronto reported earlier this month.

After picking a meal, customers have to decide whether they’re eating lunch on a plate or taking their food to go in one of the restaurant’s reusable containers — which cost $4, a fee that’s fully refundable if customers bring them back later.

Several of the city’s biggest malls, including the Eaton Centre and Yorkdale, have also embraced reusable plates, glasses, and cutlery for patrons dining at their food courts.

Since expanding its Green Program seven years ago, Yorkdale has been able to reduce waste by 85 per cent, Robinson noted.

“These organizations are taking a leadership role, but that’s not enough,” she said. “We need to push this out across the city.”

Requirement could be ‘unmanageable’

James Rilett, vice-president of central Canada for Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit association representing the food service industry, said the changes so far have been driven by customer demand.

And he argued that’s what should continue reshaping the restaurant sector — not restrictions from a municipal government.

“When something is banned or required, what we always say is, consumers have the ability to judge based on their dollars,” he said.

The councillors’ push for a reusable serviceware requirement could also present an “unmanageable” situation for any outlets which don’t have adequate dish-washing facilities on-site, he added.

But Robinson said more restaurants and cities have to get on board, given the “massive ripple effect” from plastic pollution on the natural environment.

She’s hoping her motion, if passed by council on Wednesday, would provide clarity in early 2020 on how the city could approach implementing a new requirement in the years ahead.

There’s no word yet on where Mayor John Tory stands on the motion. Tory is scheduled to appear on CBC’s Metro Morning after 7 p.m. Wednesday morning to talk about the city possibly declaring a climate emergency.

Toronto also recently launched the second phase of public consultations on reducing single-use and takeaway items at restaurants, which will focus on the possibility of charging people or businesses extra for single-use containers.

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