This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.
Shanni Weber might be the manager at Falafel St. Jacques, but she takes on dishwashing duties when needed. On a Friday morning, she scrubs a container with hot water while kitchen staff move around her as they prepare for the lunch rush. Once satisfied, she puts the box in an industrial sanitizing machine.
This container is unlike other takeout dishes. Customers make a $7 deposit to use the box when they pick up their food. Afterwards, they bring the container back to any partnering establishment for a refund.
Restaurants are revising their packaging strategy given Montreal's plan to ban many single-use plastics next year — including takeout containers that often wind up in the trash. As the city's landfills fill up, restaurants are exploring alternatives such as using compostable and truly recyclable materials, and partnering with companies that offer reusable containers that are shared across several businesses.
"I particularly like the one that's aluminum with the lid. It's very durable, it's going to last a long time," says Weber.
WATCH | Following a reusable container's daily journey:
Restaurants and eco-responsibility
Falafel St. Jacques uses La Boîte, a reusable takeout product made by La Vague. They're currently testing the containers in three Quebec regions: MRC de Roussillon, MRC de Lotbinière and Montreal's Lachine borough. La Vague is also behind La Tasse, a reusable coffee cup available in hundreds of cafés and outlets in Quebec.
"Following the rhythm of La Tasse, we're aiming to reach 100 new participants every year," says Aurore Courtieux-Boinot, co-founder of La Vague.
Retournzy is another organization offering reusable containers in southwestern Montreal.
"You take the container back, you don't have to [clean] it," says Cindy Vaucher, the co-founder of Retournzy. Their employees ride bicycles to pick up used containers, wash them and drop them back off to participating restaurants.
Patrick St-Vincent, a former restaurant owner who now works as a food service consultant, believes the industry is ready.
"There's a desire to make a difference for the environment and to improve [their] practices," he says. "Still, if the takeout box isn't adequate, people will leave it at home and forget it in a drawer."
But some customers see potential. At Falafel St. Jacques, Paul Bowden is interested in reusable containers if they can significantly reduce waste. "Long term, I think it would be a good sustainable system," says Bowden while rushing to his parked car.
"If I know they're clean" and that she can get her deposit back, "I would definitely be down," says Amol Kaur, a student picking up her lunch.
A takeout solution
Replacing single-use plastic is no easy feat. In 2021, Laurence Pageau worked with the City of Montreal on plastic management. She says finding similar, reusable materials is a complex task.
"Plastic, in addition to its democratic price, is light, hygienic, resistant and can be moulded easily in all shapes," she says. "No wonder it's so popular and hard to replace."
At the start of the pandemic, takeout volume increased and so did plastic waste. Before launching Retournzy, Vaucher was motivated to find alternatives for the takeout containers she was throwing away.
She found inspiration in La Tasse's process to come up with a solution that harnessed a community of eco-conscious business owners and customers.
"We planned, since the beginning, to create a network," Vaucher says.
Germs, sanitization and ongoing challenges
But encouraging people to opt in to the system can be a challenge — especially during a pandemic.
Ono Pokii, a restaurant in Westmount, Que., hasn't implemented a reusable takeout method yet. Owner John Weimers says this is because he's worried about the reaction from customers.
"Already in the restaurant itself, if I have anything more than a table or two, the older clients, they don't come in.… I think that stigma is going to stick around for quite some time," he says.
To address these concerns, Courtieux-Boinot says they chose the materials for La Boîte according to their environmental impact and "their ability to be sanitary and safe."
Vaucher, too, wants to make the Retournzy process as safe and hygienic as possible.
"We will clean it and sanitize it and we will do the bacterial test and redistribute," Vaucher says. "There is no risk with the pandemic."
Retournzy stores used containers separately, and their warehouse follows the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's requirements for washing and disinfecting.
Étienne Perron, a cook at Café des Habitudes in Montreal's Petite-Patrie neighbourhood, says that a restaurant's volume of customers is an important factor in using the service.
"Here, at the café, I really can see myself using La Boîte without it interfering too much with the flow of my work," he says. But he recognizes it might pose a greater challenge for restaurants that serve hundreds of meals a night.
And consumers could question whether this option is worth it. According to a social influence study by Swiss researchers, customers could feel "like one is being charged for acting sustainably."
Some restaurant owners agree. "Even though it's a deposit, if you have to buy a salad, and you have to add $7 — for some people, that's an investment, that's not lunch," says Ronan Baruch, owner of Falafel St. Jacques.
But Vaucher is convinced enough people will buy in.
"It's all a movement and [the people] are really motivated," says Vaucher, adding that wide adoption could give them enough business to manufacture the containers in Quebec.
"We want to bring the production back here so the economy can really be circular," she says.