“You can’t package pho in paper”: How these Toronto restaurateurs feel about the ban of single-use plastics

“You can’t package pho in paper”: How these Toronto restaurateurs feel about the ban of single-use plastics

In June, the federal government announced that Canada will ban the manufacture, import and sale of single-use plastics by the end of the year. This includes plastic bags, food containers and utensils that many restaurants depend on for their takeout and delivery orders. While it could be great news for the environment, it’s not looking so good for your to-go order of soup. We spoke with some Toronto restaurant owners about what the ban will mean for business.

Akash Swar, Little Sister Baking

“We’ve tried to stick to paper containers wherever possible, but for certain items that are saucier or liquid, we have had to stick to plastic. Our hot and cold drinks are the biggest challenges for us when it comes to recyclable and eco-friendly containers. We tried to find eco-friendly plastic cold cups last year, but they are much pricier, so our overhead costs would increase significantly. And we’ve only been able to source them online, which means that, in a pinch, we aren’t able to access them quickly.

“The news didn’t take us by surprise. We’re happy about it because we are always working toward being more sustainable where possible, but we’re hoping that eco-friendly containers will become more affordable and accessible as demand grows with this new ban. Otherwise, it will increase our overhead, which is stressful given inflation and the current high prices for dairy and other ingredients that we purchase regularly. It may force us to discontinue certain items from our menu.”

Conor Joerin, Sugo

“At Sugo, 30 to 40 percent of our business is takeout. We use a variety of different containers, but fried stuff is always gonna be shit if it’s to go. If you order fries or calamari to go, that’s on you. Any time you put breading or dough into a container, it’s gonna steam itself. The lighter fare, we can get it into compostable, biodegradable containers.

“We have to use the black plastic container for our pasta—it’s the only container that can hold our product. When we opened, we were using a foil product with a paper lid—it was a mess. They were falling apart and customers complained. Then we tried compostable containers, but you try putting two pounds of pasta in a compostable container—it sits for 20 minutes until someone gets it home and then it’s leaking everywhere.

“We would all love to see some better options come into the market—we’d be willing to pay for them here—but necessity is the mother of invention. There’s been no necessity because there’s no legislation around it, which means most people are gonna go for the cheapest, most durable and cost-effective option, and that’s the black plastic.

“I’d love to see what that looks like when they start to close those loops and start banning those polluting products. Cigarettes are a great example. The government has done a great job of reducing smoking: no more ads, hide the packs, change the packaging. I’d love to see them have laws like Singapore’s that prohibit flicking butts. If there’s no consequence to it, it’s just business as usual.

“I think our federal government is easily lobbied. They’ll ask you to live cleaner, drive less, consume less—but at the end of the day, if they’re building a fossil fuel pipeline, they’re full of shit. I think if they get strict with legislation on single-use plastics, we’ll figure it out—we’re an adaptable species. Finding affordable products that are more eco-friendly will be big business. Someone will come along who’s creative—nature has a lot of this stuff figured out already.”

Linda Nguyen, Golden Turtle

“You can’t package pho in paper—it will just fall apart. A large percentage of restaurants won’t be able to deliver food without using plastic containers.

“We’ve tried to package our food in paper containers. It was bad. My Uber drivers burned themselves a couple of times delivering our food, so we had to double-bag everything. Using more bags defeats the purpose of being eco-friendly, doesn’t it? A bamboo fork-and-knife set costs $2. I do about 500 deliveries a day with Uber, so at those prices, we’re not making any money. We’ve been very consistent with our pricing in store and delivery. We try to be fair. But customers will need to understand we have to compensate for our takeout products.

“It’s very expensive to go full eco-friendly. We have gone from using black to white plastics. We’ve tried to eliminate a lot of single-use plastics. We always encourage our customers to bring in old containers and we’ll serve their takeout in those. We’re trying our best, but I think the government needs to incentivize small business or help suppliers to bring more eco-friendly products to the market and drive costs down. If the government isn’t finding a solution for restaurants that need durable eco containers, there will probably be restaurant owners who will risk being fined for continuing to use plastics just to stay in business.”

Tsering Phuntsok, Garleek Kitchen

“We use aluminum, plastic and styrofoam containers. I have been working on the transition to being more eco-friendly, and I encourage my customers to bring their own reusable containers. Additionally, we sell our hot sauces in jars and offer customers $1 off their next purchase if they return an old jar. The biggest issue for us is soup. The eco-friendly containers become so weak and clumsy depending how long the product is inside.

“It’s a challenging time to enforce new regulations. I support the green initiative and think the ban on single-use plastics is needed. We have not raised our base prices since before the pandemic. However, this new change is going to impact our prices. Many of our customers here in Parkdale are on very strict budgets. We have been able to keep our base prices the same by negotiating with the farmers at the Ontario Food Terminal and by buying in bulk. However, with continued aggressive inflation and now the layer of costly new takeout packaging, we will not be able to keep the same entry prices. I think there needs to be initiatives to make more cost-effective eco-friendly products. I am expecting to lose customers due to being forced to finally raise my base prices.”

Victor Ugwueke, Afrobeat Kitchen

“We have been trying to make a conscientious effort to use more eco-friendly packaging. It’s expensive, but we worry more about the supply chain issues—it’s already hard to get consistent availability of what we order. The main thing we’ll be getting rid of is the cutlery. Some customers don’t ask for it with takeout, so as long as they don’t want it and delivery apps take it off as an option, we’d be happy to stop supplying it. It would be one less item to stock.

“Small-business owners like myself don’t have a ton of time. I haven’t had time to fully look into the regulations properly, and I likely won’t have time to do a ton of research on where to source alternative containers. We support pushing our sector to be more sustainable and less wasteful—during the pandemic, we all had a lot of takeout, and we had customers who were concerned about the amount of packaging.

“Effective adoption should be supported by super clear and easily accessible information about what’s no longer allowed and what is, as well as support to source and obtain reasonably priced alternatives. If the government is banning these items, will it invest in some local manufacturing of good alternatives that can be brought to market in time? We used to wrap food in banana leaves, so we can figure this out.”

Chakorn Chanta-Urai, Thai Nyyom

“More than 50 per cent of our food containers are biodegradable, but we still use plastic for some food items, like soups and curries. For our chef’s special meal—half curry, half rice—we have to use a plastic container to separate the two components, because the biodegradable materials we see in the market are not appropriate for that use.

“I think the ban is reasonable, but we need to find replacements once, or before, it is in effect. I haven’t seen many eco-friendly products that make me curious. I’m from Thailand, and in Thailand there are a lot of well-designed eco-friendly containers that are practical, but here in Canada it seems like there’s a very small selection, which is why we still have to use plastic. There’s just not an eco-friendly product that’s well made and suitable for the food we make. It’s not that we don’t want to use biodegradable products: if the customer takes our food home and it spills, we’re going to get many complaints.”