Beyond plastic: How Ontario retailers are ditching single-use packaging

A growing number of businesses in the province are doing away with oh-so-easy disposable packaging — and trying to promote a waste-free culture
By Diane Peters - Published on Oct 08, 2019
plastic food containers
The federal government has announced its intention to take action on single-use plastics: Canada will ban them as early as 2021. (iStock.com/gerenme)

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You may already use a refillable bottle for your water and a travel mug for your coffee. The move toward sustainable packaging in Ontario means that you can now also use your own container for kombucha.

That’s because Vitaly, on Queen Street West in Toronto, lets you serve yourself from kegs. If you don’t have a bottle to hand, you can buy a glass one for $5. Station Cold Brew, the company behind the concept, is calling this Toronto’s first package-free beverage shop. It’s just one of a growing number of companies trying to figure out what zero waste looks like on the ground.

“We work in the beverage industry, so we’re really aware of the issues around single-use packaging,” says Steve Ballantyne, founder and CEO of Station Cold Brew. While the company sells most of its cold coffee products in cans and bottles, since 2014, it has delivered kegs of brew to offices — employees use their own bottles and mugs. More recently, it set up self-serve kegs at the 10 locations of Goodness Me! natural-food stores, which offer customers glass bottles for a refundable deposit.

“This was a natural extension of what was already going on,” says Ballantyne. The Queen iteration is called Compound Café — Vitaly will be rebranding its Queen location as Compound in the coming weeks — and is kitted up with six taps serving such beverages as iced tea, cold brew with tonic, and flavoured kombucha, all made by Toronto-area brands. (Moving forward, drink kiosks run by Station Cold Brew will be called Craft on Draft.)

It’s all part of a larger effort to cut down on what we throw out — and Ontarians throw out a lot. As Matt Gurney noted in a recent TVO.org series, the province generated 9,475,472 tonnes of non-hazardous waste in 2016. The federal government has announced its intention to take action on single-use plastics: Canada will ban them as early as 2021. And, in Ontario, Bill 82 — which “identifies measurable targets and sets out timelines for the immediate reduction and eventual elimination of the distribution and supply of single-use plastics in Ontario and that requires the immediate elimination of certain single-use plastics” — passed first reading in March.

But just how consumers will manage a transition to waste-free culture remains to be seen. That’s why companies are testing out new approaches that could prove that, even without oh-so-easy disposable packaging, products can be convenient.

“What we’re trying to do is create a service that closely mirrors the single-use experience,” says Anthony Rossi, vice-president of global business development for New Jersey-based TerraCycle. The company is partnering with Loblaws to offer a service, called Loop, to Toronto-area customers in early 2020.

Loop resembles a teched-up version of the old milkman system: customers go online to buy name-brand products that are then delivered to their doors in reusable packaging. When they’re finished the shampoo, ice cream, or dishwasher pellets, they leave the empty container out for pick-up and order more. TerraCycle offers about 150 products at the moment and works as a go-between to handle orders, delivery, and cleaning.

Since May, Loop has been operating in the Greater Paris area and in the northeastern United States. The company capped its customer base at 5,000 in each market and now has wait-lists “in the tens, almost hundreds of thousands,” says Rossi. “They love the packaging. They love the e-commerce mode. They love the convenience. We’re even reaching customers who aren’t motivated by environmental reasons.”

Ontario has also seen a stream of bulk-style food stores operations open up, including Nu Grocery in Ottawa and Unboxed Market in Toronto. At Zero Waste Bulk in Waterloo, owner Ellin Park says she sells about 1,000 products, many of them local.

The 1,900-square-foot location opened last December, and sales have been “better than expected,” says Park. While the store offers some containers, such as washed yoghurt tubs donated by customers — a form of upcycling — and sells paper bags, patrons have been showing up prepared. “People are really good at bringing their own containers, and they bring their own bags, too,” says Park. “Since we’ve been open, we’ve sold less than 50 paper bags.”

Indeed, customer demand is a big driver for these new approaches to selling consumer products. According to a June study from Dalhousie University, 93.7 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they are personally motivated to reduce single-use plastic food packaging.

Ballantyne says he’s been heartened to find that other beverage companies are eager to give the package-free approach a try. Over the past few months, he and his partners asked seven companies to work with them on the project. “No one said no. It points to this concept having legs,” he says.

Park, though, notes that she has had challenges finding the right products for her shelves. “Some are really eager, some are already doing it, and some are, like, no,” she says of suppliers’ reactions to her zero-waste requests.

She does think her store opened at the right time, as companies are increasingly innovating and offering new product lines. For example, she stocks — and uses — shampoo in bar form. And she keeps an eye out for new products, such as laundry strips, that could lend themselves to package-free bulk.

Much of the waste in retail happens out of the public eye. “We’re trying to reduce waste behind the scenes,” says Park. She’s negotiated with her suppliers to send her products in plastic containers that can be washed and used again for the next shipment. Some companies already have systems in place to keep waste to a minimum: Beyond Meat, for instance, sells her plant-based burger patties in large, recyclable bags.

Ballantyne has become increasingly careful about back-room waste at his company. The stainless-steel kegs he uses can be washed and reused. The kombucha, though, comes in a single-use plastic keg, because even a drop of fermentable product left after washing could affect the next batch.

Steven Young, associate professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo, says it’s important to pay attention to the supply side. Free municipal-waste recycling and composting programs serve only residences. Factories, shippers, construction companies, large retailers, and hospitals must pay to get rid of their waste — and most send their garbage, plastic, metals, paper products, and food waste straight to landfills. “That’s the cheapest thing to do,” says Young, adding that, to change that, governments will need to incentivize waste diversion from the business sector. “If we can get into habits of reduction and reuse, this is a good thing,” he says.

“The more zero-waste stores there are, the more demand there will be,” Park says. “So there will be more options.” Ballantyne believes that the move to a less packaged consumer culture must necessarily involve new ideas and experiments. “Right now, single-use packaging feels like a necessary evil,” he says. “We have to pilot new things.”

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