Extended interview with Parka Food Co. owner Eric Chao
I wrote about Eric for the Toronto Star because of his initiative to properly recycle to-go coffee cups. When he found out that poly coated cups (the kind most places use) go straight to the landfill, he decided to do some research. The city wouldn't recycle them, but he reached out to a local company that would. He connected with Urban Street Organics, who offers a pick-up service for organics and recycling around the city.
Here's what he had to say about his decision to push for Parka Food Co. to be zero-waste, and why he decided to outsource his recycling to Urban Street.
How did you come up with the idea for Parka Food Co.?
I’m not really from the restaurant industry. So my background is in retail and apparel and business strategy. I am vegan myself so it’s something I believe and am passionate about. I started Parka, which was sort of a personal goal. I wanted to make a difference. The easiest way I thought I could do it is with everyday choices, which is food with health and sustainability in mind. Helping people to eat a little better in terms of eating more vegetables, eating a way that’s sustainable. It really started with a strong mission. It wasn’t necessarily to open the best restaurant or make the best food. It just so happened that our food is pretty tasty.
Why did you want to hire a private company to recycle your to-go cups?
It was just the process as we were going along. Keeping our mission in mind, sustainability is really important to us so there are a lot of things we’re doing. One would be packaging. We’re very cognizant of the waste that restaurants produce, being not from the industry as well. Being like a customer, and seeing how a lot of products get handled...It’s very wasteful a lot of the times.
I’ll be honest, initially we did look at biodegradable plastics because a lot of restaurants are hopping on that, so we thought, “Ok, natural solution, sounds good.” We were almost going to do it, but we kept digging a little bit more, and I was almost disappointed to find out...what’s really happening—just the nature of the materials and how the city can handle it, waste programs, and also the regulation that has ended. Not all of them are certified and not (all are) created equally biodegradable.
This just felt like something we had to do...breaking down misconceptions we think that are out there. One (misconception) being, regular plastic versus biodegradable plastic. We spoke with the city officials on numerous occasions just to double check and reconfirm. We were told also that the amount of biodegradable plastics, they do not want because they don’t work in the green bin program because the green bin program in Toronto is designed for organic waste so these plastics, although technically they can be composted, they don’t work in the system.
What happens is, because they are also not real plastic, they’re made of plant material, they can’t go to the blue bins either. They get sent to landfill. In the landfill they never really—I wouldn’t say never—but it’s very hard for it to biodegrade or do what it’s supposed to do because it’s not the right facility. There’s no oxygen or water or air for it to biodegrade so it just ends up piling up there. That didn’t sound very good to us. It sounded counterproductive.
We thought it was worse than real plastic because as we were told by the city as well, the best solution at this point in time is using real plastic because at least you can recycle it and you don’t have to create new plastics. That is actually the most...kind of against what public opinion might be about plastic—but the most sustainable solution at this time. It is crazy, but it’s based on us speaking to city officials, doing a lot of research.
What can others do to try to solve the to-go cup problem?
Certain little things, like not using black plastic, which we know a lot of people are still using in restaurants. Given the fact that black plastic is not recyclable, we purposely picked everything out in white. It fits with our brand anyway but the whiter colour plastics are more recyclable.
In terms of the coffee cups, we did a lot of research on that because a lot of our containers are also made of the same material as the coffee cups. It’s a paper base, but it has poly coating. What we discovered is that the issue with that is the plastic is lined on the paper. It’s difficult to remove it, to separate it to recycle it. It can be done.
We found that Toronto has tried a pilot program several years back and they decided not to move forward with it. But there are certain smaller cities in Ontario that are doing it. It can be done. In the US, there are certain states...but there has to be a very specialized facility to do it… It just probably costs more money. It’s not scaled to the point where everyone can do it or everyone has chosen to do it. That just kind of bothered us as well because we wanted as little waste as possible and try to make a difference as well. We kept digging around as well.
None of the items given to customers go to the landfill. How did you manage to do that?
We have two recycling (bins). One of them is paper and one of them is plastic. We do that also because the paper that we use, we know the city doesn’t recycle. That one we’ll definitely send to the private recycler. The plastic one, the city can handle, so if there’s anything in there, we can send that to the city. For compost, we can send to the city.
Everything else is reused. Everything that we give to the customer, none of it goes to the landfill. We try to make a real effort here. Even if we have to do some sorting at the end of the day. We do it if we need to. We make an effort to minimize our landfill waste as well as our food waste.
What has the feedback been like from customers?
We realize that it can be a little bit confusing. We actually like that because we think it provokes a bit of thought: What are we really doing with our waste? Instead of having one bin and throwing everything in there like a lot of places, this actually provokes a bit of thought.
They’ll ask us questions and then we can explain this is why we do this and this is our research—(which) has shown that this is what’s happening. We’re trying to change that and make a difference on our own. Also, the message here is that you shouldn’t have anything go to the landfill if you really make an effort.
Do you feel restaurants have more of a responsibility to be sustainable because of their large contribution of waste to landfills?
I do feel that it is particularly important for restaurants to be more sustainable because the large amount of waste that is typically generated on a daily basis by the industry means that there is a huge, unrealized opportunity to make a positive impact, and the habitual nature of the business and frequency of daily interaction with customers means that restaurants also have a unique opportunity to make a big impact with customers, by helping to raise awareness and facilitating better daily habits in terms of proper recycling and waste management.
Is it worth the extra cost to outsource your recycling?
The additional recycling cost was a definitely a concern when we were still deciding on our waste management solutions, but because we felt so strongly about doing the right thing (especially after becoming aware of certain misconceptions regarding recycling and waste management), the final decision wasn’t that difficult as we decided it was worth the extra expense as it was important for us to stay true to our values and maintain our commitment to sustainability.
How many cups do you go through each month since you opened in December 2017?
It’s difficult to provide an accurate figure, but if you count all of our poly coated paper packaging (including mac boxes, soup containers, coffee cups etc) which are essentially treated the same as coffee cups, I would guess we probably go through anywhere between 3,000 to 6,000 per month. Keep in mind that we are still a relatively new restaurant and I would suspect that on average, most established restaurants and coffee shops are likely going through much higher volumes than us.
Why is it important to push for sustainability?
I think everybody, even as people, citizens, businesses, we all have a responsibility to do what we can, to help the environment. It’s not to say people are doing it on purpose. It’s really a matter of asking the right questions, making the effort, educating yourselves on it, and once you have all the facts, it helps leads you to what’s the right path. Not to say that what we’re doing is perfect either, nothing is ever perfect, but if we all made the effort I think we could all make a difference. We’re doing our thing and we figured out the best way for us to make a difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed.