Sustainable solutions for take out waste

Former SFU student, Graeme McNish, challenges the "buy it, throw it out" mentality in our local food courts. 

Consider this: 99% of everything that we buy ends up in a landfill six months later, according to the Story of Stuff Project. 

Thinking back to my experiences working at Tim Hortons as a teenager, most of the trash I put in the dumpster consisted of bags, wrappers and cups that held the food and drinks I had served to customers earlier in the day.

It's normal for us to purchase a meal and then immediately throw away the plate and cutlery it came with. What if normal, instead, involved bringing or receiving reusable dishware, in addition to the reusable mugs many of us already travel with?

Food courts are a prime example of this "buy it, throw it out" mentality, including our own "local" downtown Harbour Centre, where I attend Simon Fraser University. It’s also home to the Top of Vancouver revolving restaurant, an office tower, and a small mall complete with a food court containing eighteen restaurants. The Harbour Centre serves as SFU’s unofficial cafeteria, while at the same time being frequented by a wide diversity of office professionals, shoppers, and tourists.   

This food court is where I set out to discover the best way to end soon-to-be-garbage dishware. I spoke with building management, vendors, patrons, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, and a plumbing company. 

Early in the process, I realized that if the status quo was to change, I’d have to encourage change in the food industry, or ask patrons to shift their behaviour and expectations toward food. Personal change is where I started.

The Status Quo

I’ve spent the last few months as a student in SFU’s Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue program. One benefit of the program was access to a dedicated classroom all semester, where I’ve been able to store dishes. I really had no excuse if I showed up at the food court without my own plate.

What’s striking about the Harbour Centre food court is how pleased and encouraging vendors are when I bring a reusable dish. “Good for you” is something I hear frequently. Many vendors also give reusable dish discounts. My friends and professors agree that their ceramic dishes and tupperware containers are often welcomed.

Part of the vendor’s enthusiasm may have to do with scarcity. Between 11:30 am and 1:30 pm of the two weekdays that I recorded, 29 patrons brought their own dishware, while 4000 came without. Over 99% came willing to throw out their plates and cutlery. At least now we know where the statistics from The Story of Stuff Project are coming from.

But it’s hard to fault this status quo. There’s only one small sink area, primarily for the use of the cleaning staff. While students, professors, administrators and office professionals have kitchens available in their sections of the building, they have to carry their dishes back there to clean them, which leads to a concern brought up by many vendors: health standards.

The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority is responsible for maintaining health standards in restaurants within Vancouver. When I spoke with the VCHA, they were excited about the prospect of ending needless waste, but cautioned that this was a complex issue. 

They consider a shared dishwasher system preferable to diners bringing their own dishes. “You can bring your own dishware for coffee, but once you start doing that with foods it's a can of worms.” VCHA representative Lise Vallaster explained. If a patron brings a poorly cleaned dish to a vendor, and the serving utensil makes contact with plate, there is a possibility of contaminating all the food being served.

Reusable dishes may have a place in food courts, thought they require extra attentiveness when serving. But ideally a waste free food court would use shared dishwashers, with high temperature hot water to sterilize the dishes.

Earlier this year building management considered such a shared dishwashing system, at the suggestion of the vendors who operate there.

Toli Sidiropoulos, Harbour Centre’s Sustainability Manager, explained that two industrial dishwashers would be needed for a food court of this size, requiring significant changes to the space.

More from Graeme McNish

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