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Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

When I was in my 20s, I saved up to take a wonderful gap year between jobs to travel in Asia. Of the places I visited, India was most memorable. There were food-swiping monkeys staking out rooftop restaurants, silk saris in electric colours, shoes with curled up toes, gems that may or may not have been real – and tiffins. Tiffins, the ubiquitous stacked food containers made from steel, were uniquely suited to the local cuisine because the multiple compartments kept rice, curries and dahls separate. Best of all they didn’t leak. Many people carried their tiffin lunches from home but there were tiffin delivery lunch services as well.

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Tiffins, stacked food containers made from steel, are uniquely suited to Indian cuisine because the multiple compartments kept rice, curries and dahls separate. (File Photo).BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Coming from a land of Styrofoam takeout containers, tiffins seemed quaintly archaic because they were not disposable, a quality that was once associated with modernity: Think diapers, razors, napkins, milk cartons, bottled water and, of course, takeout food and drink containers. This was before the realization all this disposable stuff had to end up somewhere, and that somewhere is our overflowing landfills and the ocean. Back in the day, you were considered environmentally responsible if you just took care not to litter. Almost no one felt bad about tossing away mounds of plastic garbage so long as it landed in trash bins.

I thought of tiffins, which are washed and reused, in a different light the other day after talking to Monica Kosmak, senior project manager for Vancouver’s Zero Waste program. It’s her job to wean Vancouverites off single-use plastic items, which, for people still not used to packing refillable coffee mugs and water bottles, will be a tough sell.

To make the transition, Ms. Kosmak must be careful to avoid crafting a policy with unintended consequences. For example, the answer to banning single-use plastic grocery bags isn’t as simple as switching to paper. Paper requires a lot of water and energy to produce and isn’t as eco-friendly as many people imagine. Nor does the city want people to buy plastic bags to toss their household trash.

Ms. Kosmak is working on a communications plan that will outline solutions to the household-waste disposal conundrum. Garbage must be contained in something. The last thing the city wants is loose trash scattering in the wind when bins are upended during collection, she says.

But there are many plastic bags we accumulate all the time that could be repurposed for trash: for example, the wrapper on a large batch of toilet paper, dry cleaning wrap, even large chip bags. There’s nothing saying garbage can’t be disposed of in smaller batches.

As for reusable tiffins, there is a Vancouver meal-delivery service already using them. Gulzar Nanda, owner of the aptly named Ms. Tiffin, says he was inspired by India’s dabbawalas, the army of delivery-service workers who deliver lunches in tiffins. There, the lunches are typically cooked by someone at home, picked up and delivered warm to the person at work. But there are deliveries made from restaurants as well.

Mr. Nanda ran with the idea for his meal-delivery service. He contracts with people to provide a set number of meals a month and picks up the empty tiffins each time he delivers a new one. He chose tiffins because they have a nostalgic appeal to his South Asian customers and fit with his own sustainability values. Mr. Nanda is about to change to a pickup model but hopes to keep sending out food in tiffins, perhaps collecting a deposit to insure they are returned.

Thinking about tiffins made me wonder if there might be a way to standardize reusable containers for takeout food. Turns out, the city is a step ahead on that front as well. Mr. Nanda says city staff have consulted with him and many others for the design of a pilot project for a container to replace single-use plastic items. “They even have a little pouch with chopsticks, a knife and fork – everything gets packed in there.” They are hoping that everyone in Vancouver will carry one someday, Mr. Nanda says.

Will tiffins be next? Mr. Nanda points out they work well for certain types of food. “But a pizza is not going to fit.”

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