By Magali Vander Vorst, SPEC Board Member
Image: Regan in the Tupper Secondary School’s Teaching Kitchen
Patricia Regan is the chef and teacher at the Tupper Secondary School’s Teaching Kitchen, where they serve 120 to 140 meals a day and barely use any single-use plastic. Regan is a passionate educator who brings her sustainability values to the school’s kitchen counters.
When she started this job back in 2011, she walked into a kitchen with minimal recycling, overflowing bins, and piles of single-use plastic containers, not unlike most commercial kitchens in Vancouver.
But unlike most chefs, Patricia decided to change that and started asking herself one simple question: Is there another option?
Change is not easy in any industry, but it’s especially challenging when you have to juggle staff members, process lines, tight budgets, and customer expectations. “When you are busy, it’s not easy to change [a habit], it takes mental space to do it,” says Regan of her students’ first reaction to having to change their ways. “What I had to do was plan ahead, not do everything at once, and have all the answers ready.”
This is how she first got rid of the plastic boxes for the sandwiches: they used to pack the sandwiches in ‘sandwich hangers’; clear boxes that let consumers see the product they were getting. She suggested using paper bags instead. She convinced her students to start using this new packaging and created a process they could adapt to easily, without taking any extra time. This was a challenge on its own, but only the first of the many roadblocks she had to deal with. The most important one was that consumers lamented they couldn’t see what the sandwich looked like anymore.
Most industries, once faced with the customers’ unease, revert to their old habits. But Regan, who is not one to give up easily, asked herself again, “is there another option?” And so, she got printed signs with a picture of the food and placed them next to each type of sandwich.
Result? They had no change in sales, and they went from spending 42 cents on each plastic hanger to 5 cents on each paper bag. Thinking back, Regan says “it just didn’t feel like a good use of plastic.”
This first change was the most challenging for Regan as her students never thought of doing things differently than what they were used to. Then “you start doing things that make sense and people understand.”
Image: Reagan helping one of her students.
Regan started looking for other improvements. Much of the kitchen’s food comes packaged in plastic bags. She explained that they had to “clean and hang them inside-out if we wanted to reuse them, but there was no space in the kitchen to hang all those bags to dry. And, if you throw them in the garbage, they get moldy, and they can’t even be recycled.”
While Regan was looking for yet another option, the solution came in the shape of a new cooler the kitchen was purchasing. This one had metal walls, and Regan quickly figured out a solution: “My sister gave me magnets for Christmas, and we now use them to hang the bags on the side of the cooler, it’s easy to get the students to do this and it doesn’t take up space.”
This creativity and determination has driven many other changes in the kitchen. For example, cookies are not individually wrapped anymore – which is not only a waste of plastic but also takes time. “We are down to one single plastic item for every meal,” and I’m pretty sure the days for that one are numbered.
Now, the kitchen waste has gone down from six bags of garbage per day to one, and sometimes even half a bag. But, as Regan says, “this shouldn’t be the exception.”
“Plastic is not going to be around forever,” in fact, many countries are already regulating the use of plastic, banning its use for some situations or even banning plastic bags and cutlery altogether, such as in France. *
Changing small daily habits – like what we buy or the packaging we use – doesn’t only reduce waste but influences the habits of those around you. And all we need to do is ask ourselves a simple question: is there another option?
Did you find another option? Tell us about it by tagging @SPECbc on Twitter.
*Update: Vancouver is not far behind. On May 16, 2018, Vancouver City Council voted to ban plastic drinking straws and polystyrene foam containers, as well as limit the distribution of single-use plastic bags and cutlery.