Café produces zero consumer waste

All products purchased from the Tea Room have recyclable or compostable packaging

Andrew Dean (second from right), head manager of the Tea Room, with other staff members (from left to right) Sarah Ferguson, Dorothy Yu and Allister Smith.
Andrew Dean (second from right), head manager of the Tea Room, with other staff members (from left to right) Sarah Ferguson, Dorothy Yu and Allister Smith.

Tea Room officials say the campus coffee shop is now the only café in Canada with zero consumer waste.

Head manager Andrew Dean said consumers can recycle all packaging or hand it back to the café to be composted.

The final step in achieving this goal was implemented on Nov. 21 after the Tea Room found a compostable alternative to plastic wrap. Now the service uses a cellulose-based polymer sheet to wrap food. Dean said it took over a year to find a California-based supplier of the product.

“It’s a very new technology that’s just kind of being rolled out, it’s definitely not main-stream yet,” Dean, Sci ’12, said. “It looks exactly the same as plastic wrap but it’s different in that it isn’t self-adhesive.”

The café has used compostable coffee cups since it opened in 2006. Since then, the Tea Room implemented compostable stir sticks and cutlery.

Any biodegradable material handed back to the Tea Room is either composted in vermicomposter bins, located on site at the Integrated Learning Centre, or taken to a local composting facility.

Dean said it takes several months for the worms to fully degrade the materials into fertilizer. Once this occurs, the Tea Room donates the fertilizer to local farmers or vendors at the Farmer’s Market.

He said it’s inherently more expensive for the Tea Room to be a green establishment — coffee cups cost two to three times as much as a non-biodegradable cups and direct trade coffee, meant to ensure farmers earn fair wages, costs about $3 more per pound.

Dean said sustainability has been one of the Tea Room’s mandates since it was established by the Engineering Society in 2006.

“Our environmental mandate is a big differentiating factor for us,” he said. “It’s always been something we push for.”

The Tea Room’s current operating budget is about $200,000. For the past few years, the business has incurred a small annual loss due to the expansion of the Common Ground café, Dean said last year they had a net loss of $5,350. He added that currently the Team Room is up $14,000 in net income compared to this time last year.

Dean said the logical next step for the Tea Room is to become fully waste-free, expanding green measures to the suppliers’ side.

“Right now we only produce about one grocery-bag worth of landfill waste per day,” Dean said, adding that this mostly included supplier’s packaging.

The Tea Room has four managers and 46 staff members. Dean said the zero consumer waste goal was the work of the managers and a group of staff in charge of environmental innovations.

“We have to continually push the envelope to stay on top of green trends,” he said.

Adam DiSimine, the AMS commissioner of the environment and sustainability, said the AMS food services, Common Ground (CoGro) and the AMS Pub Services (TAPS), are also working to become more sustainable.

“The Tea Room is kind of leading the way in sustainability on campus with regards to student services,” DiSimine, ArtSci ’11, said. Currently CoGro uses biodegradable cutlery and cups, which decompose faster than non-biodegradable varieties. However, both CoGro and TAPS currently lack composting services.

DiSimine said the AMS has spoken to Housing and Hospitality Services about implementing compost at CoGro.

“They compost in the cafeterias currently and they said we may be able to bring in those customized [composting] bags,” he said.

The AMS implemented composting at CoGro two years ago, DiSimine said, adding that they encountered problems with the bags being too small and breaking with the amount of waste they were generating.

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