How to Launch a Bring-Your-Own-Container Program in Any Community

Carrying your thermos and containers out and about, wouldn’t you like to know if a café, restaurant or bulk store allows you to fill up your reusables before you walk through the door?

For waste-reducing shoppers and diners in Canada, a simple, powerful, low-tech tool removes the guesswork—an old-fashioned sign in a shop window.

How the Canada Reduces BYO container initiative works

Members of local Canada Reduces groups approach neighborhood businesses and ask them to consider allowing customers to bring their own containers to fill up. Businesses that agree—or businesses that already allow BYO containers—then display a BYO sticker in their front window. Container-toting, low wasters see the sticker and know they can shop there hassle-free. (I told you it was simple…)

a group of stickers for various neighborhoods in Toronto that indicate that a business allows customers to bring their own containers for filling with food or drinks
Window stickers of some of the 18 participating Toronto neighborhoods

The five-inch stickers eliminate the need for:

  • Telepathy
  • The spiel: “Please put my food in this container so I avoid plastic waste” and “Yes, staff here have allowed me to do this in the past” and “No, not with a plastic bag inside or wrapped around the container, thank you”
  • Bracing yourself for possible ensuing awkward looks
  • Any embarrassment when you shop and dine (not that you should ever feel embarrassed for asking for a sandwich to be put in a tin but making such an overtly subversive request does require some courage)

Interview with Tina Soldovieri, founder of Canada Reduces

Tina Soldovieri set out on a mission to reduce not only her family’s waste but her neighborhood’s

I recently spoke with Tina Soldovieri, who, in 2019, founded the grassroots initiative Roncy Reduces (and now, Canada Reduces), which spread from Roncesvalles to 17 additional Toronto neighborhoods and several cities in Ontario, including Hamilton, Barrie and Ottawa. (Find all the Canada Reduces groups here.)

Tina grew up in Germany and moved to Toronto in 2002. While raising her three children, she realized that our environment is in dire need of support. She decided to change careers and completed a Master’s in Environmental Education. Tina works at the High Park Nature Centre to help connect children and adults with nature.

I’ve edited our interview below for brevity.

What motivated you to start Roncy Reduces?

Seeing the daily packaging in a family of five. In Toronto, we have these very large recycling bins. If you fill up this huge bin every two weeks, basically something is wrong. That was one reason. More concrete, I went to a talk by Bea Johnson in Toronto. After listening to her—she can be very inspiring—I bought her book and read her book and I wanted to make this happen.

So I wanted to use as little packaging as possible but found it frustrating at that time to talk to businesses about it. It often seemed that they were very hesitant [to fill a container]. You felt like you were doing something borderline. So that’s when I talked to other people with the same experience and we decided to do this together to make it more normal. That was the idea. To make it more normal, make it mainstream.

People sometimes tell me we have bigger issues than plastic pollution. I imagine you hear this as well. How do you respond to that argument?

I think that plastic is one of our biggest problems. From the production—using the fossil fuels and producing greenhouse gases and destroying wildlife, to the health risks when you wrap everything in plastic, to the end of life, where it creates this mountain and landfill stuffed with plastic, where the plastic stays for hundreds of years. And we’re creating daily more of these landfills. We don’t even know the full scale of the problems the landfills will cause. This is what we give to all future generations.

So many of these problems are interrelated and micro and macro plastic pollution is a big link in the mass extinction of species. It comes back to humans when we eat the fish and drink the water.

I think plastic pollution was on the way to becoming well understood as a giant collective problem of our throw-away society by many people, businesses and levels of government before the pandemic. The pandemic has depleted people of energy and hope and we are feeling that we are still in an emergency situation and all other problems have been pushed in the back. But we need to realize that our waste and plastic problem won’t go away if we ignore it.

There are big problems and one of them is plastic. And we don’t have a solution for it. We use it every day but we don’t have a solution.

Which businesses joined Roncy Reduces first?

The first businesses were those who have been open to it a long time before: local health food stores with bulk sections and deposit/return glass milk bottles and yogurt jars; produce corner stores who spend a lot of money on single-use plastic bags; environmentally minded coffee shops and restaurants. Then you have three, four or five that are okay with it and then you can also go to other ones that are more hesitant. You can say, “We have this initiative. Four or five are already signed up.”

How many businesses have joined Roncy Reduces? (One of 18 groups in Toronto alone)

Over 70, but due to the pandemic currently, 42 are on the list of allowing some form of BYO during the pandemic.

What is the biggest barrier to convincing businesses to allow BYO containers?

Currently the pandemic. Businesses worry about how they are perceived or worry about contamination itself (even though BYO has been declared safe by many health experts and the City). During the pandemic what some businesses did was they have a tray specifically for reusable containers so when somebody comes with one, you put your container on the tray and they fill it so they never have to even touch it and the container doesn’t touch their kitchen. So that makes it pretty easy.

It’s harder for people to make changes because they are stressed. It’s not their priority. It’s a bit of a hassle for restaurants. People don’t want to put a burden on the restaurants; the restaurants don’t want to put a burden on the people.

I think this is why the deposit-return container programs are expanding. The restaurant has a stack of reusable containers. When somebody orders, the restaurant fills one up and there isn’t that extra step of [the customer] dropping off a container. 

Can you give an example of a returnable container program?

There’s one coffee shop in Toronto called Poured Coffee and it is the only coffee shop that has no disposable cups at all. They have reusable cups for in-coffee shop drinking and they have a bunch of porcelain cups they give away. People bring them back or customers say “I have another one at home. I can give you that one too.”

I talked to one of the baristas there and she said 75 percent of the people who come in are fine [with this setup] and then about 25 percent of people need to be convinced and then there’s 5 percent of people who walk out—they don’t want any of these reusable options. But she said most people like it. I think it’s cool to be a brave coffee shop and say “I’m not doing this anymore.”

On your Facebook page, you put a call out for reusable mugs. Would you please elaborate on that?

The Toronto Cup Collective wants to start a reuse and return cup program in Toronto in which coffee shops can participate. First, they wanted to create a cup but then they thought, there are actually so many cups out there, why don’t we go out and look for those that are there and put a sticker on them that says “Toronto Cup Collective” and offer those to coffee shops? People who forget their cup or don’t even think about it can be asked by coffee shops, “Do you want the disposable? We also have this reusable cup” and then the customer has to bring it back. So we were collecting cups for that program.

Do you have any advice for others starting a BYO container program in their community? What has worked best?

It works best if you start small and local. This way it is not an overwhelming amount of work and at the same time, you benefit from it immediately. Find some neighbors or friends in the neighborhood, map out a street or an area and start talking to businesses. Talk to the easy ones first. As soon as you have a few on board, it becomes easier to talk to more skeptical ones. Surprisingly, many businesses are open to reducing packaging.

During the pandemic, we call them. But before the pandemic, when we got most of the businesses involved, we would just visit them at a time that wasn’t very busy, like 11 in the morning or 2:30 in the afternoon where there’s a window and then we would try to find the person you can talk to. And if they say “Oh it’s not a good time,” be very respectful of their time, always. Ask, “Can I come back at another time?” if they are busy.

We would just tell them that we are concerned about the plastic crisis and we want to help people with steps they can take in their lives. We ask if they would be okay to have that sticker—and that the sticker doesn’t really involve any extra work. It just means they allow people to bring their own clean cups and clean containers and clean bags for refilling and in return, we promote them. We write little posts about them. So they are known to be offering this and people maybe go there more often and hear about them more often. And so this is kind of the spiel.

We have tried to explain the process in detail on our website, including flyer and sticker examples. It is called “Start and grow a group.”

Do you have advice for businesses that would like to offer BYO containers?

Businesses are sometimes interested in getting started because they are a zero-waste store or coffee shop, and they can also be a hub. We always try to tell businesses that it’s super easy and that it’s more like shifting your mindset a little bit: “Where can I reduce the single-use and packaging waste in my store?” Have this in the back of your mind as a guiding principle, like staying away from double-wrapping or single-use portions like sugar and ketchup and especially not offering single-use without asking customers.

So you always ask, “Do you need napkins? Do you need cutlery?” So shifting away from I’ll-throw-it-at-the-people and embracing people bringing containers, embracing that this is a good thing that I’m doing—I fill that instead of using a single-use one and try to make it as easy as possible even when there is this extra step. That might be the tricky part for businesses but I believe that it’s not a huge hurdle. But it is different from grabbing your single-use container or styrofoam to plop the food in and hand over. There is more interaction in taking the container.

Stores and restaurants display the sticker and—hopefully—also mention [the program] to their customers.

Where do I get the stickers?

I looked up printing companies in Toronto and I found one that is not far from us so I can actually bike there and they are also okay with not packaging the stickers. They just hand me the stickers so they don’t have to be shipped. And you don’t need many. If you start a group and you order 50… to get to 50 is a huge feat. 

(Contact Canada Reduces if you would like to use the Roncy Reduces design for your sticker.)

Where can readers find more information to start their own Reduces group?

The Canada Reduces website was created for all Reduces Groups. We tried to compile as much info as possible without making it too much. It includes a bunch of tools and tips, books, films, and ideas to help people getting started. If people [outside Canada] want to start a group and be under that umbrella, I don’t mind having them under the umbrella. It’s nice to have any group.


How to start a similar BYO container program

During my interview with Tina, she mentioned the Canada Reduces page on getting started. That page lists three key steps, along with helpful information on executing each one:

  1. Connect with neighbours
  2. Get a sticker and contact businesses
  3. Spread the word

The strategy is as simple as the request we low-wasters make: “Please put the food here.”

Importing the idea to the Bay Area

During my interview with Tina, I said, “We need a similar program here.” Then I realized, I could start a similar program here. While discussing this idea with the City of Palo’s public works, a manager told me, “We did a quick check with the Santa Clara County and they said there are no restrictions on customers bringing their own cup, bag or container.” I’ll pass this information along to hesitant business owners.

Soon after our chat, Tina sent me the design. Next, I have to find a printer. I already have several people ready and eager to help with this project. Just as asking a server to put your sandwich in a clean container goes over better if you bring a friend, approaching businesses to sign on will more likely succeed when a group of us works together.

bright green, round graphic for a sticker to place in a store window to indicate that customers can bring their own container to fill

My cookbook is now out!

A timely and much needed resource. We love the way Anne-Marie gives us manageable, actionable steps so that we can waste less in our own day-to-day lives.”

Tracy, Dana, Lori, and Corky Pollan, New York Times bestselling authors of Mostly Plants

One Reply to “How to Launch a Bring-Your-Own-Container Program in Any Community”

  1. Stephanie Miller says: Reply

    Great article about Roncy Reduces! Ever since interviewing Tina last year for my book, I’ve been thinking about starting a similar program in my DC neighborhood. I’ll be eager to hear about your progress in the San Francisco area.

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