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City of Vancouver targeting takeout waste with ban of foam containers

How will our consumer behaviour change when restaurants can no longer use the same kind of foam takeout containers in Vancouver?
In the city of Vancouver a ban on foam cups and foam take-out containers goes into effect Jan. 1. Pending council approval, unnecessary use of plastic straws will be banned as of April of 2020, while new regulations will prescribe that disposable utensils may only be given out upon request by the customer. Photo: Restaurant takeout container/Shutterstock

I have been anticipating this meal all week. Takeout from my favourite sushi joint, at the height of uni season, is going to be stellar. I pick up my order and pay. My order is packed into paper bags, which are, in turn, packed into plastic bags and then tied at the top, with a takeout menu stapled to one of them.

At home, I unpack the bags and reveal no fewer than nine Styrofoam containers of varying sizes, the smallest ones, the round ones for the sunomono salad and gomae, have plastic lids. There are enough soy sauce packets in the bottom of the bags to start up my own small condiment enterprise, should I wish. Six sets of chopsticks are individually wrapped in paper sleeves; I feel like a pig as this order was supposed to be for two of us, but the restaurant clearly thinks there is enough food here for the Raptors’ starting lineup, plus the coach.

As we lay waste to the excellent sushi and its various accompaniments, the residual waste, in the form of all of this packaging, piles up on the kitchen counter. Sure, there is now a recycling program for white foam packaging and soft plastics, plus the chopsticks are compostable. But how absurd is it that my one meal should produce a bin’s worth of waste in the first place?

Multiply my meal by the number of similar takeout orders not just at that same venue, but indeed across millions of locations around the globe, and the corresponding plastic, foam, and organic waste from a single dinner service becomes enough to kill my appetite. I have thought this about takeout meals before, and most especially about sushi takeout, which more often than not employs ludicrous amounts of Styrofoam. I try to dine in at a restaurant as much as possible, but I’m starting to think that when I cannot, I perhaps ought to forfeit the meal entirely, opting for something decidedly less environmentally reckless.

I have attempted to bring my own containers in for sushi takeaway, but at the moment, this is a hit and miss solution as, technically speaking, restaurants are in violation of various current health codes if they fill takeout containers brought in by customers without a prescribed, onerous sanitation process. Some places are willing to take the chance by accepting your glass and plastic containers, but when you consider it is potentially their business license on the line for the trouble, I can’t say I blame those that refuse.

According to City of Vancouver research, nearly 50 per cent of all garbage collected from public waste bins is takeout containers and disposable cups. That picnic at the beach may sound like a great idea, but if you stop to grab the food on the way, it becomes an outing that potentially taxes the very slice of nature you were hoping to enjoy.

Beginning in January 2020, the City of Vancouver is taking bold measures to reduce waste related to food service, passing legislation where common sense and individual accountability have thus far failed. The first measure to launch in the new year is a wholesale ban on the use of foam cups and foam takeout containers for all licensed businesses, effective Jan. 1.

I would be happy if I was a shareholder in a sustainable packaging company right now as this measure is going to effect dramatic change in the aforementioned sushi business category alone. Of course, there is no mandate to businesses to replace foam cups and packaging with, say, compostable packaging.

We could see a surge in the use of inexpensive plastic clamshells, for instance, but the hope, as I understand it, is that the foam ban will be a watershed moment, driving businesses en masse to seek alternatives. With an immediate and predictable demand for alternative packaging, perhaps manufacturers of compostable products will finally achieve the economies of scale required to put their wares more in line with conventional plastic packaging prices.

The fact remains, however, that even compostable and recyclable waste is far from environmentally neutral, the processes required to source, manufacture, package, ship, and ultimately regenerate these products requiring significant quantities of water, oil, and energy; specialized, sometimes rarefied composting environments are also often required for products billed as compostable.

Plastic straws will be banned as of April of next year, while new regulations will prescribe that disposable utensils may only be given out upon request by the customer. Plastic and paper bags, as well as all disposable cups, will be banned in Vancouver by January 2021, but as yet, there are no firm plans around disposable (non-Styrofoam) takeout containers. 

Locally, there has been a small but emphatic movement at a grassroots business level to effect positive environmental change in the consumer takeout experience. Last year, Deep Cove’s small but punchy Bluhouse Market & Café, purveyor of organic, vegetarian and vegan fare, much of which begins life with ingredients sourced from local farmers markets, led the charge against plastic straws in Deep Cove as part of a consortium of neighbourhood businesses. The ban on straws extended to the Deep Cove community itself and not just within the walls of a few dedicated food service operations.

Everyone’s favourite artisanal ice cream joint, Earnest Ice Cream, has seen their signature glass pint jars, which are sold with a deposit so they may be returned and used again and again, become an integral part of their brand identity; indeed, it is impossible to think about Earnest without picturing their dye-free, recycled craft cardboard jar labels (hopefully bearing the words Oatmeal Brown Sugar, in my house).

Lynn Valley’s Nourish Market, established in 2011, is one of a handful of venues on the North Shore that offers a refill station for certain products that are otherwise conventionally sold with significant plastic packaging. In Nourish’s case, customers are encouraged to bring in their own containers to fill with detergents and soaps in bulk, which are sold by weight. The store also has a six-tap kombucha station, allowing patrons to bring their own growlers to fill with the fermented teas., the grocery delivery service that specializes in local, organic, and sustainably produced products ranging from fresh produce and baked goods to pet foods and beauty products, has launched a new packaging takeback program. The online retailer (which also operates a limited number of bricks and mortar stores under the BeFresh brand) is in the process of onboarding suppliers from within their current roster for the program; British Columbia’s ethically-minded Nature’s Path is the first partner out of the gates.

Products from participating in the program will bear a Takeback symbol and can be placed into the bin in which your order was delivered. The company will take these packages back and commits to recycling or upcycling the materials by taking full ownership for the process, rather than relying on mainstream waste channels, the outcomes of which are not always transparent

“Only 10 per cent of recyclable packaging is recycled in Canada,” explains Peter van Stolk,’s CEO. “If your product is packaged in hard-to-recycle packaging, we will invite SPUD customers to return the packaging to us in their SPUD bin and SPUD will recycle it through our circular solution and partnerships with specialized recycling companies.”

Perhaps between the practical efforts of individual businesses and tighter municipal regulations, we will one day be able enjoy a sushi takeout experience that does not weigh so heavily on the conscience

You can read the City of Vancouver single-use item reduction strategy here