“We’re at over 250,000 containers now”: A Q&A with a Toronto entrepreneur on a mission to save plastic takeout containers from landfills
Before launching CASE, a business focused on saving plastic from landfills, Catherine Marot worked at an executive headhunting firm where she had a hard time seeing all the single-use containers from her colleagues’ takeout lunches getting tossed. What started as encouraging co-workers to bring their own to-go containers to restaurants morphed into a full-time operation that has rescued more than 250,000 plastic containers.
Have you always been interested in plastic waste?
My parents moved here from South Africa and Zimbabwe, and growing up, money was always really tight, so eating out was a luxury. Coming from immigrant backgrounds, they wanted to reuse everything as many times as possible—we took our lunches to school in Becel margarine containers. When I started working downtown in 2017, I saw the amount of waste accrued from people buying their lunch every day. I had conversations with my co-workers about the waste problem and wondered how I could do something about it.
When did you realize that black takeout containers aren’t recyclable?
I knew that from a couple years back, but in September 2019, Toronto held a town hall meeting for the new amendment to single-use plastic. Someone stood up and said, “When are you going to do something about this goddamn black plastic?” I thought, Oh, wait, other people care about it too?
So, this mission, you chose to accept it—but how did you get started?
I got a kick in the butt from a friend who pointed out that it’s naive to think everyone is always going to bring their own containers—people already have too much on their plate. That’s when I got the idea to commercialize the act of reusing containers.
How did restaurants come into play on that front?
I thought, What if I could sanitize these single-use takeout containers and sell them back to restaurants? Now, restaurant owners don’t want to buy a couple of containers here and there: the average Toronto restaurant goes through about 5,000 a week. So I asked around at various restaurants to find out where they bought their containers. I ended up being put in contact with a distributor who sold new containers to restaurants. My sanitized reused ones can now be added to their stock and sold along with the brand-new ones.
What stage was your project at when Covid hit?
I made a trip to Portland before the pandemic to visit the oldest-running recycling scheme. It’s called GoBox and it works with high-quality polypropylene containers. I shadowed the owner for two days. Back in Toronto, I managed to get Mad Radish, which is located within the Path, on board for a pilot run. The date on the contract was March 14, 2020…
Not great timing! What happened next?
During lockdowns, I continued to email and call restaurateurs about my idea, their current purchasing habits and behind-the-scenes processes. I also participated in Impact Zero Accelerator, a local non-profit founded by circular-economy expert Erin Andrews. I brought up the idea of collecting, reusing and recycling black plastic to her and she loved it. With her encouragement, I went ahead and set up the first bin in March of 2021 at the Junction location of Organic Garage.
How many drop-off bins do you have now?
We have 10 public bins now, some of which are seasonal. We also have 12 private bins that offices and condos have paid to have on site—those bins are my main source of profit. The public bins—at grocery stores like Fresh City Farms and Organic Garage—were what started it all, though. They’re near and dear to my heart because anyone can access them.
And how many containers have you saved from the landfill so far?
We’re at over 250,000 containers now.
That’s a lot of containers. Where did you store them all?
In the garage and basement at my dad’s house on the Mississauga–Oakville border—it got really stressful. Part of the reason it worked was because he was with his girlfriend in New Orleans for a good chunk of the pandemic. I gave up my lease at my apartment in Toronto, and since no one was at his place, I figured I’d use the house and save some money. I started storing my collected containers in his garage without him knowing. I didn’t ask for permission.
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And how did he react when he found out?
He was not happy. He said, “This is not how you run a business, and you can’t be doing this in my house.” Thankfully, I secured an actual warehouse space in Mimico just this month.
Take me on the typical journey of a takeout container that comes your way.
First, a container is dropped off in one of our bins. Then, it’s picked up and brought back to our warehouse, where the inspecting and sorting takes place. Any type of high-quality container is set aside and sanitized for reuse. Containers that don’t pass quality inspection are put into huge plastic boxes called Gaylords, which go onto pallets to be loaded onto trucks and sent to our partnered recycler.
Because, typically, those black plastic takeout containers head to the landfill, right?
If it’s not collected by our program, yes, but we’re able to recycle the ones that we don’t sanitize for reuse. Since most of Canada has single-stream collections, where everything is chucked in one blue bin, these black plastic ones don’t get pulled out for recycling. We deal directly with a recycler that recycles high-density polypropylene, which is what these containers are made of.
There’s a single-use plastic ban set to come into effect in Canada by the end of the year. What happens to CASE then?
I’m really interested to see how the takeout container manufacturers deal with this ban. They have a lot of money, and I know some are just printing “reusable” on the containers. As for how it affects me, my business will be or it won’t be—and I’ll still carry on with my life. Even though they’re coming down with this ban, what won’t change is our collection system when it comes to recycling and waste hauling. Now that I’ve figured out how to make a recycling company that works, I could just start collecting a different type of plastic.