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Beyond The Straw: Part 1

A&W was the first of many big brands to ban the use of plastic straws in their restaurants, making the decision to phase out the straws in June of 2018. In January, of this year, the city of St. Catharines followed suit and passed a law by unanimous vote to prevent the use of plastic straws and stir sticks in municipal facilities and on city-owned spaces. The focus on shifting away from the single use plastic straw gained momentum after a video surfaced showing a human trying to remove a straw stuck inside a sea turtle’s nostril. The video has since gone viral, and now we are flooded with images and videos of land, sea and life that are struggling to survive, or are not surviving, from the disaster that single use plastics has plagued our planet with… and rightfully so. But it’s not just about the straw.

With the naysayers of climate change still vocal despite the growing mountain of science that proves global warming is very much real, it is hard to argue with the image of a dead whale on a beach whose stomach is full of human created, used, and tossed single use plastic. And it is no secret that the food industry provides much of this waste. In fact, the food & beverage industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Canada, with annual sales upwards of $112 billion. Food packaging is one of the world front runners when it comes to single use plastics, and while much of it is recyclable (and much of it isn’t), our recycling facilities are becoming overloaded with items, and society as a whole is looking for new and creative ways to use discarded plastic.

The good news is there are many local Niagara food & beverage purveyors that are turning to more sustainable ways of giving you your takeout meals and drinks. One of the pioneers of compostable take-out options in the region is The Merchant Ale House, who chose to make the switch to the more sustainable option over six years ago. Owner John Tiffin stated that the move “was important to us as a company”, and at the time switching to compostable take-outs aligned with a pilot project for compostable waste in downtown St. Catharines, so it made sense.

Other early adaptors of sustainable packaging in the region were Tamara Jensen and partner/chef Adam Hynam-Smith. From 2010-15 the pair operated food truck El Gastronomo Vagabundo, and used 100 per cent biodegradable food service containers. They even went so far as to convert their spent fryer oil to biofuel for local farmers. According to Jensen “managing waste is good business practice for any restaurant”.

For Graham Shaw of Mahtay Café, it’s about “starting that conversation with customers”. The business has always been sustainable-focused, and offers a discount on coffee if you provide your own travel mug. He also identifies that compostable products have come a long way; the pulp lids they use are Canadian-made and their production does not harm the environment, which has been an issue in the past for creating compostable products.

It is important to note, however, that compostable packaging doesn’t come cheap, with some products priced at double or triple the amount of their single-use plastic or Styrofoam alternatives. This can definitely be a hinderance to a business that cannot afford to pass along the cost to the consumer. Sarah Jarvis, owner of Craft Arts Market, provides some of the best coffee in town. She found that the compostable coffee cups they were using were not only expensive, but needed a minimum order that the business couldn’t meet at the time. “Our choice is simple. We don’t want to be part of the waste problem,” Jarvis said, and is looking into other more cost effective products that will allow Craft to return to compostable options while providing her customers with a high quality and affordable coffee.

There are many more waste-conscious food and beverage providers in the area, including Rise Above Restaurant, The Lemon Tree Bistro, and Your Farm Gate Farm to Table Catering, to name a few. The important thing is to be active and curious consumers. Ask your favourite restaurant to make the switch to compostable containers if they haven’t already. You might even ask if you could provide your own take-out containers, and eliminate the waste all together. The best way to put pressure on businesses to make change is by voting with your dollar; choose to spend your hard earned money at local restaurants and food shops that truly care about reducing their waste and bettering our environment.

Written by Kate Notwell

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