The pandemic drove rise in plastic takeout waste. Now's the time to end the trend, activists say

·3 min read
Black plastic used by many restaurants can't be recycled. (David Donnelly/CBC - image credit)
Black plastic used by many restaurants can't be recycled. (David Donnelly/CBC - image credit)

Throughout the pandemic Toronto residents have increasingly relied on takeout food and its many throw-away containers — think black plastic that can't be recycled — generating a huge amount of unnecessary waste, environmentalists say.

But the silver lining is people, businesses and governments are paying attention and looking for reusable solutions, said Emily Alfred, a waste campaigner with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, leading up to Waste Reduction Week. And in the long run, the pandemic didn't distract from the growing problem as many feared, Alfred added.

"Instead, it's increased the demand and made people realize even more that plastic and waste is also a health crisis," Alfred said. "Single-use plastic is also toxic and something we need to confront. We can't just ignore this."

Erika Reyes is looking to change the way Toronto does takeout. She recently launched Inwit, a "zero waste" takeout program for restaurants.

"Inwit is a startup that wants to inspire more people to embrace sustainability, every day, one step at a time, even if it's not perfect," Reyes told CBC's Here and Now Thursday.

Customers order and pay for their food from participating restaurants on the Inwit app, Reyes said. It will be ready for pickup in insulated, stainless steel containers. They're required to return the containers within seven days, which restaurants wash and reuse, and then earn "impact points" toward their next purchase.

Reyes said the reusable containers are more sustainable than recyclable products like paper bags that are only used once and carbon-intensive to produce. Besides, many of the containers put in Toronto blue bins are not actually recycled, but instead end up as garbage, she noted.

Asked why she thinks Inwit will be successful, Reyes said: "When you align your choices with your values, it empowers you, it makes you feel really good, I think that will be what will bring more people."

Governments need to step in

But to make a serious dent in the plastic problem, and help businesses ramp up programs like Inwit, governments need to get involved, said Karen Wirsig, Environmental Defence's plastics program manager.

"The problem seems insurmountable and certainly is not going to be solved by us as individual consumers," Wirsig told CBC News.

"This is where we really need rules and systems in place to ensure that reuse is not only possible, but also incentivized."

She envisions a closed-loop system like the one used by the Beer Store, where customers return their empty bottles and get some money back, for beverage and takeout containers.

During the most recent federal election campaign, the Liberal Party promised $100 million for plastic reuse and recycling infrastructure.

"That is a wonderful opportunity for the federal government to get more actively thinking about how to support systems in communities around the country," Wirsig said.

The federal government also pledged to ban six single-use plastics this year, including bags, cutlery and some takeout containers. For the ban to have the biggest impact, it will be important to give businesses like restaurants alternatives to other single-use materials like wood, cardboard and glass that all have damaging environmental effects, said Wirsig.

But, she said, plastic remains the biggest concern.

"It never really goes away. It might break down into smaller and smaller particles or it ends up in our air and in our soil and water in a different form," Wirsig said.

"That's why the panic is really about plastic."

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