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During lunch hour, Montreal’s downtown food courts are filled with thousands of people eating lunch — almost all of them on Styrofoam plates. The meal lasts a few minutes but the Styrofoam stays in the landfill for hundreds of years.

Yet there is one major shopping centre just off the island that has switched to reusable dishes, cutlery and glasses.

(This story originally appeared in OpenFile Montréal: Ceramic plates in food courts: Laval’s doing it, why can’t Montreal?)

In November 2009, Carrefour Laval inaugurated a fully renovated, redesigned food court (or “Dining Terrace”) that incorporates a number of green initiatives — including the use of real dinnerware and cutlery.

The dish service is run entirely by the centre: food court staff bring the used plates, bowls, cups, glasses and cutlery to a giant dishwasher, and then back to the food court’s vendors (17 fast-food restaurants and 8 specialty food stores).

Carrefour Laval's giant dishwasher can clean 14,000 pieces of dinnerware per hour, using only 25 ml of water per dish. Photo courtesy of Carrefour Laval.

And the centre has gone even further. “There are no garbage cans in the food court,” explains Micheline Caron-Groulx, Carrefour Laval’s Marketing Director. “Customers bring their tray to a station where our staff sort the waste. All the organic waste goes into a pulper and is then brought to a City of Laval composting centre.”

This kind of service does cost more for restaurants than what they would pay in a traditional food court. But while Caron-Groulx did not have information on how it affects restaurants’ bottom lines, she notes that “sales are very good. We have had a lot of positive feedback from customers.”

In fact, Cadillac Fairview, the company that owns and operates Carrefour Laval, has incorporated the concept into its revitalization of the Toronto Eaton Centre, currently underway. It is also considering implementing the model in some of its other Montreal-area centres.

“I think this is where customers are at,” says Caron-Groulx. “People are looking for more ecological solutions. A few years ago it was okay to walk around with a plastic water bottle; today it’s not.”

Too expensive?

Back in Montreal, most food court diners are still eating off of plastic or Styrofoam plates. But at least one food court is trying to integrate reusable dishes. At Carrefour Industrial Alliance located on Ste-Catherine near Metcalfe, nine of the food court’s 20 restaurants use real plates or bowls. It’s a policy encouraged by the administration, although the individual restaurants are responsible for buying and washing their own dishes.

“Originally, the idea was to use all reusable dishes, but it would have been much too expensive,” explained Myriam Clouët des Pesruches, Project Manager at Ahern Real Estate Corporation, which manages Carrefour Industrial Alliance. “So instead of making it mandatory, we opted for an individual approach.” Restaurants that choose to use reusable dishes are helped out by the food court’s cleaning staff who are instructed to help collect the dishes, scrape them off, and bring them back to the restaurants. Clouët des Pesruches estimates that using reusable dishes has reduced the amount of garbage produced at the food court by half.

Fiore Bistro, at the Carrefour Industrielle Alliance food court downtown, has been using real plates and cutlery for 11 years.

Mahmoud Baioumy, co-owner of Fiore Bistro, says his restaurant was one of the first to use real dishes and real cutlery when it opened in the Industrial Alliance food court 11 years ago. “We wanted to bring Montreal up to date, with a different image,” he said. “Our customers appreciate it, especially business people: they want food that is ready quickly, but they still want real restaurant food.”

Yes, it’s costly, says Baioumy, and yes, they lose some plates and cutlery because of breakage and theft. But he believes it’s worth it. “People come back to us for the quality of our food and the service,” he said. He adds that real dishes are not only better for the environment, but they’re cleaner — straight out of the dishwasher.

While most diners interviewed said they chose their meal for the food, not the type of plates, “it can influence my choice,” said customer Noémi Lamarre, who works downtown. She eats in food courts often, and would like to see more establishments using reusable dishes. One visitor from Switzerland seemed to find the whole fast-food court set-up odd, explaining that where he comes from you just find individual restaurants, and always real dishes.

Clouët des Pesruches says the costs of implementing a system like the Carrefour Laval’s would be far too expensive for their restaurant tenants. But she does not exclude the possibility entirely. “If we can find a solution that is manageable in terms of costs, we will consider it,” she said.

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This week I visited the dump. That is, the dump where a good chunk of Montreal’s garbage goes: the BFI Canada landfill in Lachenaie (Terrebonne), just northeast of the island. It’s the biggest active landfill in Quebec, taking in non-hazardous solid waste from Montreal, Laval, Lanaudière, the Laurentians and the Montérégie.

As I stared at a bulldozer pushing a mound of garbage, I thought: every granola bar wrapper, every piece of Styrofoam packaging, every item that I throw into my garbage can ends up here, crushed and buried. It sits here, forever.

The excursion was organized by the Société environnementale Côte-des-Neiges (SOCENV) . “Quebec produces more garbage per person than any other province,” noted Elisabeth Cordeau, from the SOCENV.

Actually, BFI regularly welcomes visitors, and has a full-time communications person devoted to promoting waste reduction, reuse, recycling and composting among citizens and schools. And while André Chulak is doing a great job, the landfill business is not likely to suffer from his efforts. The garbage just keeps on coming.

Most of the site was surprisingly clean and not even smelly. But as our bus rolled through about 2 km of small hills, Chulak reminded us, “Under those hills, that’s all garbage. It can go up to 12 m deep and 40 m high.” Between 500 and 700 trucks dump their loads each day, five and a half days a week. Week after week. Year after year. At the current rate, the Lachenaie site will be full in about 15 years.

1 million people's daily garbage

How it works

The garbage is deposited in cells built like vaults in clay. Beneath these cells, 10 m of clay serves as an impermeable barrier. At the bottom of each cell, a network of drains and pipes collects the leachate, the garbage soup that leaks through when it rains or snows. The leachate is treated in a system of lagoons: a first decants the soup (creating a permanent layer of sediment at the bottom), while two others use aerators to speed up the natural process of bacteria breaking down the organic matter. The water then goes to the local wastewater treatment plant.

That’s why it’s so important not to throw hazardous waste such as batteries, old paint or medicine in with the regular garbage, Chulak stressed. “With the wind and snow and transfer process, some matter inevitably gets into the environment.” He adds that municipal wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to treat such products either. (You can bring them to an eco-centre so that they are disposed of safely.)

Garbage also produces biogas (resulting from the breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen), composed mainly of methane and carbon dioxide. This is captured through a system of 300 wells. About 25% of the biogas goes to the site’s power plant, where it is transformed into electricity for over 2,000 homes in the nearby towns of Terrebonne and Mascouche. The rest is burned. It turns into water vapour and carbon dioxide which, in terms of greenhouse gases, pollutes 21 times less than methane, according to the BFI website. “So yes, it still pollutes, but less,” said Chulak. He noted that BFI has plans to transform the remaining biogas into natural gas, which would be more energy-efficient.

Shepherd’s pie

When our bus gets to the section where garbage is currently being dumped, the smell is stronger, but the garbage itself is still not that visible: as soon as it is dumped, a 50-tonne compacter crushes it; when the garbage reaches 3 metres high, it is covered with a layer of dirt and a fluffy material made from recycled (non metal) car parts. “It’s like a shepherd’s pie of garbage,” said Chulak. “3 m of compacted garbage, 50 cm of dirt, repeat until 40 m, then top with 3 m of clay.”

Yet what we do see of the garbage is depressing: it’s easy to make out flattened juice cartons, bits of metal or plastic. “I’d say that 75% of what ends up here could have been composted or recycled,” said Chulak. “Once it’s in the garbage truck, it’s too late.”

Many people think the garbage will eventually disappear, he said. That’s false. Glass, metal and plastic may degrade over time (a long time), but they never disappear. “Once the hole is full, it’s full forever. All we can do is cover it up and build a park or golf course on top of it.”

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When I told one of my friends that I was starting an environment blog, she said, “Hmm, the environment. That’s hard.”

Hard to write about? I asked her to clarify.

“Everything is designed in a way that prevents you from being environmentally friendly,” she explained. The world goes against it.”

“That’s why I’m starting an environment blog,” I said.

I want to feature Montrealers who are doing interesting and innovative things to protect the environment and to promote sustainability in their community.

I want to talk about environmental issues that matter to Montrealers, and potential solutions.

I’m not exactly a hardcore environmentalist, but I try and do my part. When my daughter was born, I used cloth diapers. I subscribe to a weekly compost collection service. Even with two young kids, my husband and I don’t own a car: we use public transportation or Communauto. We chose to live in a duplex near a metro station, rather than buy a house out in the suburbs.

To some of my husband’s suburbanite colleagues, this is all very radical. Yet next to some of our more bohemian Mile End friends, this is all very tame. After all, we didn’t use the cloth diapers all the time. I still buy little juice boxes and individually wrapped cheese sticks for my kids.

As a writer and journalist, however, I feel the way I can make the greatest difference is by giving a voice to those who are being a bit more daring and enterprising. The aim of this blog, therefore, is to draw your attention to pilot projects, events, educational projects, research, new technology, or other initiatives taking place in and around the city.

My ultimate goal is not just to inform, but to inspire.

So if you know of someone involved in an exciting environmental project in the Montreal area, please let me know!

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