"Everything that we give to the customer, none of it goes to the landfill," said Eric Chao, owner of Parka Food Co.
Before opening the restaurant in December 2017, Chao researched ways to make his packaging as sustainable as the vegan burgers he serves. He looked into Toronto's
programs, which both say hot drink cups, in general, belong in the garbage.
"That just kind of bothered us," he said, "because we wanted as little waste as possible and to try to make a difference. We kept digging around."
Most to-go coffee cups can't be recycled by the city because they're poly coated, lined with plastic. The paper and plastic lining are difficult to separate, the paper quality is low grade and it's of little value, according to a 2009
"The only way we'd be able to sort them, if we could, would have to be manual. It's extremely expensive to do that," said Director of Policy, Planning and Support for Solid Waste Management Services Vincent Sferrazza. "Just as important, there isn't a market that wants them. We collect our recycling with the intention of it being sold to a market that will then use it into the production of another product."
But Chao wasn't willing to compromise his restaurant's no-waste mandate. He reached out to local company Urban Street Organics, who offers a recycling service for to-go cups.
"There's hundreds of millions of coffee cups we go through. That's how we drink our coffee," said Urban Street Organics CEO John Ciocioiu."To make a dent in this, what I think needs to happen is the actual manufacturer of coffee cups-they need to work together to find a better solution for it. We'll always grab coffees to go. That's not going to change."
He founded Urban Street Organics after starting with one compost bin around three years ago.
"I was working in business banking at the time," he said. "I would collect all the organics in the lunchroom from all the staff and I would compost it at home. It grew from there."
The company now includes compost and recycling pick-up services for office buildings and commercial establishments around the city. Ciocioiu said, on average, he collects 15 to 18 kilograms-worth of to-go cups a month from one single restaurant. That's up to about 1,320 cups, which are taken to an Ontario facility. The majority of the materials are processed in Canada while some are shipped overseas.
"It took a long time to figure out the proper companies that would be able to process them," said Ciocioiu. "It's important for me to do it. We have clients where we collect only coffee cups from them."
The Centre for Social Innovation, a membership-based coworking space, is one of those clients. The Spadina Ave. and Sullivan St. location is surrounded by coffee shops, including Dark Horse Espresso, who
vowed to stop using black coffee lids along with Second Cup and Balzac's Coffee Roasters. (Black plastic is
from blue bins). Most to-go cups, however, still cannot be recycled by the city.
"We have a lot of guests and workshops and things that are happening as a high-activity space," said CSI community animator Marcus Huynh. "We do have a lot of coffee cups that come through the space."
Most CSI members use mugs at the office, he said, but that doesn't stop others from bringing in to-go cups or using them at events. It was important for CSI to find a way to recycle them, according to Huynh, because they believe in investing in the environment.
Chao opened up Parka Food Co. with a similar mission in mind.
"You shouldn't have anything go to the landfill if you really make an effort," said Chao. "The final decision (to hire Urban Street Organics) wasn't that difficult. We decided it was worth the extra expense as it was important for us to stay true to our values and maintain our commitment to sustainability."
Parka currently goes through around 3,000 to 6,000 poly coated paper packaging items a month, which include to-go cups and containers.
The recycling and compost bins at Parka Food Co., he said, have been a learning experience and talking point for customers, who are used to tossing out leftover food and packaging into the garbage. There are three options at Parka: reuse, recycle (paper and plastic), or compost-but no trash bin.
"We realize that it can be a little bit confusing. We actually like that because we think it provokes a bit of thought: 'What are we really doing with our waste?," said Chao.
City staff are currently looking into ways to "reduce and or eliminate not just coffee cups, but single-use packaging," said Sferrazza, as part of the Long Term Waste Management Strategy.
A report on possible methods to study the issue further is expected to be handed in by staff in July.
In the meantime, Chao said he'll keep trying to achieve his zero-waste goals at Parka.
"Restaurants have a unique opportunity to make a big impact with customers, by helping to raise awareness and facilitating better daily habits in terms of proper recycling and waste management," he said. "We try to make a real effort here."
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