The Tiffin Project tackles takeout waste with Vancouver restaurants

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      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 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.


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      Kim Collins

      Aug 21, 2012 at 4:55pm

      We've been taking glass & rubber lidded containers to restaurants in our neighbourhood for the last few years and they've almost always been happy to oblige us. The trick has been to let them know when we place our order over the phone. Occasionally, we will encounter the odd grumpy staff person who thinks it's a strange idea, but the managers usually figure out quickly that it will save the business some money. But, this idea of the tiffins takes things to a whole other level. Best of luck to Mr. Moyes in changing our local restaurant culture for the better!


      Aug 21, 2012 at 5:23pm

      Great idea! Hopefully it's one that will gain momentum.


      Aug 22, 2012 at 1:41pm

      I feel this is a good idea but then my friend said you have to by a container from each resteraunt to get the discount and they are $20 each, even if they $5 its still not a sustainable option if you have 20 fave resteraunts.
      So i felt that is no good.
      I am not sure how to contact this guy about it but there an awsome alternative option i experienced in Austin when I lived there: you automatically pay a $2 deposit of the container and get the $2.00 back upon its return and if you don't return it your card is charged the full price of the container. I like that one much better, or of course you can bring your own container which i think getting a small discount is fair.


      Aug 23, 2012 at 9:27am

      Bringing your own containers is not a new concept. Restaurants should provide the discounts to all not just those bringing in the tiffins.


      Aug 25, 2012 at 5:12pm

      Hope this works. The big fad for urban food carts just means lots of garbage and waste with single use containers, that's why some won't buy anything from them.
      i've been bringing my own containers/plates for take out, sushi etc. for a few years fine- won't even take disposable chopsticks etc.
      Once you get into the habit, it's easy...kinda like switching to cloth grocery bags.

      Don Barthel

      Aug 26, 2012 at 7:46am

      One issue with the bring-your-own-container: if the food is prepared before your arrival for pickup (i.e. sushi), where does the food sit until you arrive? Or, does the preparation not start until you arrive (necessitating you having to wait)?

      Naturesmelody seems to have a solution, that the restaurant owns the container and you pay a deposit on it.

      Warren O.

      Aug 26, 2012 at 10:48pm

      Two things come to mind in a devil's advocate manner:

      First, I think the overall consumption of resources, and the production of emissions and waste to manufacture, transport and clean the stainless tiffins should be weighed against the impact of using suitable plant based, biodegradable, single-use tiffins. Mining metals, producing stainless steel, manufacturing metallic dishware, transporting heavy end-products, and continual double washing by both patrons (post sale/consumption) and establishments (pre sale) should be factored into the discussion.

      Second, to eliminate health concerns, restaurants should be made to provide already clean and dry common use tiffins to their patrons by some form of deposit, etc. Extra containers would be required on hand by the establishments, and ongoing redistribution may also be required by a "runner" working for the project.

      It's a great concept Mr. Moyes. My hat is off to you for your sustainable vision and your drive to action!