The Tiffin Project tackles takeout waste with Vancouver restaurants
Hunter Moyes arrives at Harvest Community Foods (243 Union Street) laden with tiffins—round, stainless-steel food containers—that the grocery store/café will be selling as part of the Tiffin Project. The initiative is Moyes’s recently launched eco-baby, a bid to eliminate disposable restaurant takeout containers and to support local agriculture.
Moyes sits at one of the café’s outdoor tables and chats with earnest sincerity about how the project came about. As a chef, he was appalled at the number of disposable containers used for takeout and leftovers. He had his own tiffin that he was using as an alternative when he carried out, but wanted to find a way to spread the gospel to other consumers.
The eureka moment came in 2010, when his dad told him about Shaffeen Jamal of Curry 2 U (281–1689 Johnston Street) who was providing customers with a discount if they used a tiffin they had purchased from him. “Within 24 hours, I tracked him down,” says Moyes.
Between then and the Project’s launch in July, Moyes has been working hard to find a suitable tiffin, and to woo restaurants onboard. As much as he loved his own three-tiered original, Moyes realized its many interlocking parts would be an obstacle for quick restaurant adoption. Moyes tested it on a chef friend of his, and it was a flop. “He looked at it like it was a Rubik’s Cube,” says Moyes, laughing.
The solution is a durable, single-layer, watertight tiffin made by ONYX Containers that is easy to use and more closely approximates the size of a typical restaurant takeout box. Moyes lovingly shows the two versions that restaurant partners can choose between:, a 1.1-litre container and a slightly flatter 1.2-litre version, with a removable partition inside.
The concept is simple: consumers buy tiffins from participating restaurants or from thetiffinproject.com/ and then get discounts on their food when they put the tiffins to use. The containers are $26, with $4 of that amount helping restaurants buy from local farms. Moyes will work with restaurants on an ingredient-by-ingredient basis, getting them to switch to a local producer by subsidizing the cost difference.
“Localizing food and agriculture is very in line with our values,” says Sarah Wagstaff, operations manager of the Noodle Box (1867 West 4th Avenue and 839 Homer Street), during a phone chat. The restaurant chain received an email from Moyes about nine months ago and immediately responded because they had been doing their own research for a similar concept. As well, since customers were already informally bringing in reusable containers, becoming tiffin-friendly just made sense.
“We go through 750,000 noodle boxes a year. That’s a huge amount,” says Wagstaff. While their containers are compostable, Wagstaff is eager to reduce this number by providing customers with an incentive to switch to the tiffins. They’ll get $2 off their first food bill with the purchase of a tiffin, and $1 thereafter.
Other establishments that have said yes include Nuba, the Waldorf Hotel, Edible Canada, Fable, the Stock Market, and Tacofino, and more are on the way. Moyes does concede that some restaurants may be hesitant about joining because, ultimately, liability rests with them when it comes to consumers bringing in outside containers. The Noodle Box runs the tiffins through its dishwasher before filling them up as an extra precaution.
During a phone interview, Trudi Beutel, spokesperson for Vancouver Coastal Health, says that the decision to accept outside containers rests with the food operator, although Coastal Health would prefer if participating restaurants alerted them about this practice. While she confirms that liability is borne by the operator, she does consider the use of outside containers to be a “low-risk activity”.
One potential tiffin adopter is the Kaboom Box food cart (northwest corner of Robson and Granville streets; West Georgia between Burrard and Thurlow streets). Over the phone, owner Andy Fielding explains that the cart goes through about 200 compostable boxes a day, with a few die-hard green consumers bringing in their own containers. “When we first started the business two years ago, we wanted to commit to sustainable packaging,” he says. He hadn’t yet heard of the Tiffin Project when the Straight spoke with him but his positive response was immediate: “We would absolutely participate in it.”
Moyes’s dream of turning his local initiative into a worldwide shift in consciousness (like the switch to reusable water bottles) may be coming true. He’s already received interested calls from Saskatoon, Calgary, Montreal, and even Bristol, England. Recently, a couple from Washington State bought a tiffin and have plans to pitch the idea to their Chamber of Commerce. “The concept could work in any city so long as there’s the willingness,” Moyes says.