Toronto has a takeout container problem.
The city reports nearly 85 million units of takeaway containers and 39 million single-use cups generated by each household per year. That number continues to increase during the pandemic, a time when restaurants have relied more than ever on takeout and delivery.
The city has its own Single-Use and Takeaway Items Reduction Strategy, and a number of local startups have emerged to tackle food waste.
When it comes to takeout containers, there’s a new Toronto company that’s aiming to make the process more sustainable – and they already have a number of local restaurants on board.
Inwit, a zero-waste takeout app, offers reusable and insulated containers made out of stainless steel.
You can order using the Inwit app from a partnered restaurant, like Tibet Cafe & Bar in Roncesvalles or Mugi in the Annex. The restaurant then packages the food items in the Inwit containers, which have near-field communication technology, something that the Inwit team says helps with tracking. You have seven days to return the container to any of the participating restaurants, and returning it faster earns more points that can be redeemed for more food.
“It’s a mashup between a food app and a library system,” says Clément Bureau, chief technology officer of Inwit.
Inwit’s co-founder Erika Reyes says she came up with the idea for the company seven years ago while trying to reduce plastic as a personal choice. She soon realized that in order to make notable changes, the systems had to change too.
As a Toronto food-lover, it was natural for her to start with the restaurant scene.
Restaurants “are the heart of our city and help bring people together,” she says.
Starting at restaurants could be the gateway for some people to rethink plastic consumption as a whole.
“When it comes to independent and local restaurants, they are the ones that are probably going to suffer the most from climate change,” Bureau says. “They won’t have a lot of farms or [other supply chains] to rely on.”
“So we wanted to build something that was helping restaurants to embrace sustainability and to have more resiliency for the future,” Reyes says. “[That way they] can keep their beautiful traditions alive through food.”
The “slow cook movement” for local restaurants
Inwit launched a pilot program back in September 2021 in collaboration with six restaurants, which included Cafe Polonez, DOSA South Indian Restaurant, Tapioca Cafe and Cafe Tibet.
“Our partnered restaurants are very committed to the cause,” Reyes says. “They believe that in order to tackle climate change, we all need to change – including businesses, individuals and governments.”
Reyes says the independent restaurants like the “at-home feel” of the steel containers vs. the typical plastic container.
During the pandemic, some local restaurants have complained that the popularization of takeout and delivery has reduced their ability to focus on presentation and consistency, especially when relying on third-party delivery services.
“Many of these restaurants are actually more inclined to the slow food movement, where they make their food from scratch and use local ingredients,” she says.
“They don’t want their experience to almost be destroyed by single-use containers,” Bureau adds.
What about extra costs?
Bureau says that while customers don’t necessarily have to pay a deposit or extra fee for the containers, the menu prices tend to already include the price of their packaging.
Inwit typically charges restaurants “a marginal commission per order placed on the platform.” However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the financial strains restaurants have been facing in the city, Bureau says they are currently not enforcing the commissions.
“We took a leap of faith there,” he says. “Our mindset was really to work together with restaurants to help them through this.”
Both Bureau and Reyes say they hope to expand their partnerships with more Toronto restaurants.
“I think that the future of takeout looks very community-driven,” Reyes says. “We want to keep empowering the community to keep embracing sustainability in every area of life. And we see the power that food can bring into our lives.”
“Hopefully in the future we can also see how we can help other industries to pivot to less plastic use,” Bureau says.