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What are restaurants doing to cut down on single-use plastics?

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Waves of Change is a CBC series exploring the single-use plastic we’re discarding, and why we need to clean up our act. You can be part of the community discussion by joining our Facebook group.    

Halifax restaurateur Bill Pratt is still waiting for a two-year supply of biodegradable paper straws he ordered three months ago to show up. 

Trying to source a paper straw that doesn’t turn to mush after 30 minutes in a drink is a challenge, he admits, but one that he and others in the business are trying to meet as more and more customers demand eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics.

“The demand has gone through the roof,” says Pratt, founder and director of Chef Inspired Group of Restaurants. The Dartmouth, N.S.-based company includes Habaneros and Cheese Curds restaurants as well as a number of food trucks. 

A number of big chains and local restaurants are phasing out plastic straws like these in favour of biodegradable paper options. (Canadian Press)

Many national chains have also taken steps to move away from single-use plastics — a shift that’s largely customer-driven.

Recipe Unlimited is Canada’s largest full-service restaurant company with brands including Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s, New York Fries, Montana’s BBQ & Bar, and East Side Mario’s. It started phasing out plastic straws in August, with the aim of having them all gone by March 2019.

Their Prime Pubs brand has already eliminated plastic straws at their locations, including Fionn MacCool’s. 

“Our customers across different brands have been asking, can we do something, can we make a change, and try to make a difference,” says Maureen Hart, senior director of communications and corporate affairs at Recipe Unlimited.

“I can say so far, the feedback has been great.”

Paper straws on request

Going forward, Hart says paper straws will be available upon request, though she hopes customers will ultimately opt to go straw-free. 

The challenge, she points out, is a growing trend toward takeout and delivery, with companies like Uber Eats offering a broader service of delivery from restaurants. Customers want less packaging and waste — but they also want their food to go.

“To look at reduction strategies makes it challenging when the behaviour is going in the opposite direction,” she says. 

Recipe Unlimited has heard from customers who want to bring their own containers when collecting takeout orders, but that introduces another problem, which is food safety. 

“We can’t stand behind the cleanliness of that packaging,” says Hart. “It just brings up a whole other area of concern for a larger restaurant company like ours. We wouldn’t want to compromise quality.” 

Instead, the company is looking at possible replacements for its single-use plastic packaging, takeout containers, cutlery, and cups. 

Bill Pratt is the founder and director of Chef Inspired Group of Restaurants, a Dartmouth, N.S.-based company. (Robert Short/CBC)

However, as Pratt has discovered, many options are more expensive and not all customers are on board with the change.

Chef Inspired introduced wooden, biodegradable cutlery in its restaurants years ago, but now offers both wooden and plastic options due to a negative reaction.

“We get a lot of complaints about the wooden cutlery, people feel like it’s a tongue depressor when you’re eating,” says Pratt. His company also uses biodegradable takeout containers, which he says are made of sugarcane, but cost three times more than plastic.

Municipal rules vary across Canada

Another challenge is offering containers that might be recyclable in one jurisdiction but not in another.

The inconsistencies in Canadian municipal recycling rules is on the radar at McDonald’s, according to the restaurant’s public relations manager, Kristen Hunter. She says the company has plans to tackle that issue.

“We understand that recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behaviours vary from city to city, but we plan to be part of the solution and help influence powerful change,” Hunter wrote in an email.

While customers still choose to dine in, there is a growing trend of takeout and delivery services. (Robert Short/CBC)

Much of the packaging is fibre-based at McDonald’s, but Hunter says the company uses plastic packaging in approximately 20 per cent of its global operations. Earlier this year, the chain announced its goal to source 100 per cent of guest packaging from renewable, recycled, or certified sources by 2025. 

Pratt wants to see people, businesses and municipalities all get on board and commit to new products in order to help reduce costs. 

“Some cities where I’ve worked in the past, Fort McMurray for example, have said, no, we don’t have any plastic bags,” he says.

“It forces everyone to use paper or something reusable. Then the prices come down. That’s what’s happening with straws right now. There’s such a demand, you can’t even get them.” 

With alternatives being developed to respond to this demand, the people at Recipe Unlimited hope to bring changes to their restaurants sooner rather than later. 

“We’re definitely open to solutions, if people have ideas we’d love to hear them,” says Hart. “We really want to make a difference in this area.” 

Chef Inspired introduced wooden, biodegradable cutlery in its Nova Scotia restaurants years ago, but now offers both the wooden and the plastic due to a negative reaction from customers. (Robert Short/CBC)

A number of restaurants and coffee shop companies have announced they’re doing away with plastic straws and are bringing in a paper alternative for customers who request it:

  • Canadian chain A&W has announced a rollout of its plastic straw ban, which it says will save 82 million plastic straws from ending up in landfills. 
  • McDonald’s was recently identified by a Greenpeace audit as one of the five multinational corporations whose branded waste was most frequently collected in cleanups in Canada. The restaurant chain now has plans in place to reduce plastic and is looking for sustainable solutions for plastic straws globally. It started providing paper straws in the U.K. and Ireland with trial alternatives in other markets. 
  • Subway is eliminating plastic straws from its 3,200 restaurants in Canada, and is working toward making all its packaging recyclable, compostable, or manufactured from sustainably sourced materials. 
  • Starbucks has promised to eliminate plastic straws by 2020, with a strawless lid and alternative-material straw options to replace them.
     

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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