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David Segal was the co-founder of DavidsTea Inc. He left the company in 2016 to launch fast-food chain Mad Radish.

When Tim Hortons announced sweeping changes to its iconic Roll Up the Rim program – which include the introduction of “digital rolls” and rewards for consumers who purchase their coffee in reusable cups – the headline on their press release was “Roll Up the Rim To Win 2020: Paper, Digital and Sustainable”.

That last word caught my attention.

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It’s estimated that Tim Hortons serves two billion cups of coffee every year. Save for the small percentage of those drinks that are served in customers’ own reusable cups, every one of those cups is lined with polyethylene, a petroleum-based plastic. Not only are those cups virtually impossible to recycle, since separating the plastic from the paper is a cumbersome process that requires adapted recycling facilities, but polyethylene products require a large amount of resources and energy to manufacture. And since the plastic lining takes years to degrade, small plastic particles from the lining can make their way into animals’ diets, accumulate in their systems, and eventually land on our plates through the food chain.

What does it say about the state of change in the food-service industry today, then, that the introduction of digital “rolls” in a marketing promotion centred around a polyethylene-based product is a headline-worthy sustainability solution?

This isn’t a Tim Hortons problem. “On-the-go” food packaging is on track to be a US$1-billion global industry by 2026. And yet only 5 per cent of that packaging is compostable. None of Canada’s largest food-service chains currently use compostable packaging. And although Starbucks led a global competition to develop a compostable cup – which closed a year ago – none of their Canadian locations currently use any of the solutions identified through that competition.

To be clear, the compostable packaging currently on the market is not without its challenges. Most of the compostable packaging solutions available today cannot be composted in city facilities – and instead need to be sent to commercial facilities (at Mad Radish, we have to contract private companies in both Toronto and Ottawa to remove our waste and compost it in their facilities). Government and industry need to work together to make serious improvements to the compost infrastructure – but there needs to be first-movers to spark this change.

Like any product, every piece of food packaging has both a beginning of life and an end of life – a “cradle” and a “grave.” And compostable packaging is superior to traditional fast-food packaging at both points.

Most compostable packaging is made from paper, bioplastics, or a combination of the two. PLA, the most common form of compostable bioplastic, is made from plant-based materials such as corn or sugar cane. These plant-based materials are renewable resources, unlike polyethylene – which is made from non-renewable fossil fuels. And while in landfill they’re no better and no worse than their plastic counterparts, when composted properly, PLA-based materials will revert to water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and biomass in only two to four months. Compostable packaging isn’t perfect – but it’s better. And we can get to perfect by starting with better.

I think it’s fair to assume that the biggest barrier to a large-scale switch to compostable packaging is cost. At Mad Radish, for context, our most popular menu item is the Fired Up Chicken bowl. After factoring in all store costs, our profit on this menu item is around $1.45. If we served that bowl in a plastic container, with a plastic fork, that profit would increase to $1.67. This 15-per-cent increase is not insignificant – but if others in the restaurant industry begin moving in this direction, we know that costs will come down. For context, McDonald’s revenue for 2019 was US$21-billion – imagine the impact (on pricing and the planet) if they put their purchasing power behind compostable packaging.

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Instead, the most common solution is to place the burden squarely – and solely – on consumers. Tim Hortons has announced a 10-year marketing plan to promote reusable cups, one that includes giving away 1.8 million reusable cups this year, all made of plastic – and rewarding customers who bring in their own cups with additional contest entries. But reusable cups (which take more resources and energy to produce than the single-use cups) need to be used over and over again by consumers in order to be even a little bit better for the planet than the single-use cups already in circulation.

At DavidsTea, we ran an incredibly popular summer iced-tea promotion for several years: purchase a branded travel mug (made, yes, of plastic from fossil fuels) and bring it back all summer long to get iced-tea refills for only $1. We sold a lot of plastic mugs. A lot. (And truthfully, that was the goal – there was a great profit margin on those cups.) But you know what we didn’t sell a lot of? – $1 iced-tea refills. Because very few people wanted to – or remembered to – carry a plastic mug around with them all summer long.

Supply and demand, as we all learned in high-school economics, are inextricably linked. Are there real challenges around both the price of the available materials and the range of compostable packaging solutions currently available? Absolutely (in fact, at Mad Radish, we’re currently in the process of developing our own net new compostable sandwich packaging to fill a gap we’ve found in the market that frankly shouldn’t exist). But with increased demand, supply will follow.

All of us in the food-service industry need to stop sidestepping the issue. Sustainability is not an easy headline in a press release, it is a real problem that requires difficult actions that move us forward. We don’t have 10 years to convince Canadians to start carrying around branded plastic cups – it’s time for businesses to assume real responsibility for the waste we put into this world.

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