We’ve all heard the term BYOB, but there’s a new “BYO” in town that has a goal of minimizing harmful single-use items and the last letter is up to you! The BYO movement encourages customers to bring their own containers to be safely filled on-site at various food and retail locations. Customers can opt to use their own travel mugs, foodware, jars, and many other container types to avoid the disposable packaging we so often encounter as consumers. BYO is a simple, low-tech solution that promotes participation from businesses and consumers alike. As an important aspect of reuse strategies, BYO promotes multiple pathways to a reusable circular economy across Canada. It allows for the freedom of choice and flexibility required for certain communities to achieve more circular, reusable practices.
Source: Avenue Calgary
Although there’s a simplicity to BYO, the ability of local governments and businesses to implement and support these programs varies immensely across regions. In Canada, the landscape for BYO programs and policy is far different than that of the United States. No overarching federal law prohibits or bans BYO specifically in Canada. The Canadian Food Retail and Food Services Code provides model requirements for assuring food safety at the federal level. The provinces and territories have their own specific food premises and safety regulations that are more prescriptive, each with a varying degree of reference to the use of reusable containers on food premises, but no province or territory has outright restricted the use of reusables.
In the majority of cases, other than addressing standard sanitizing and contamination concerns, it’s the trend in emerging Canadian municipal bylaws to allow individual businesses to develop a written policy that outlines the parameters of customers bringing their own reusables. Through this type of policy, the business can establish clear expectations of what’s considered acceptable and unacceptable in terms of the health and safety of reusable containers. The City of Edmonton’s recent SUI bylaw is a great example of municipal policy mandating individual food businesses to establish a policy relating to the use of customer-owned reusables (Sections 19-21).
Source: Plastic Free Places
BYO is particularly useful for festivals and community events. Where groups of people gather to celebrate with food and drinks, there are frequently large amounts of single-use waste. For both event holders and attendees, BYO is a low investment, high impact option to reduce their plastic waste footprint. It can be incorporated into many of the food type facilities we see at local events, such as food trucks, independent concession stands, and temporary pop-up shop locations, that might not otherwise have access to deposit programs. Mind Your Plastic and other environmental non-governmental organizations advocate for BYO as an option for consumers and businesses at events and festivals, so that all solutions are available to community members.
Community building is an additional benefit of BYO that can be underestimated. It’s a straightforward way to activate citizen participation in solid waste management and climate advocacy. Through organizations such as Zero Waste Ithaca, a community of plastic reduction advocates is fostered that inspires members to voluntarily participate in important grassroots initiatives. Each person involved in BYO work carries their knowledge and passion back to a circle of friends and family, where they can educate and influence others to reduce the amount of disposable packaging in their lives. Successful BYO programs also demonstrate demand for reusable systems, creating a proof of concept for businesses thinking about making an internal switch to reusables. Opportunities are generated through BYO for community members to join together, discuss sustainability, and push the reuse movement forward.
At times, BYO is argued to be an anti-equity or exclusionary practice that creates a new issue by placing the onus on consumers to make the necessary packaging behaviour changes. While it’s absolutely true that customers shouldn’t be responsible for systems change, it can often be the only avenue available to those wanting to take part in reusability. We know that the actions of individuals cannot solve systemic issues, but every small action makes a difference.
For equity purposes, a city, local organization, or business can easily support BYO for low-income communities with a reusable foodware program to provide reusable foodware for free to anyone who would otherwise face barriers to participation. We’ve seen this type of accessibility accommodation within existing reusable policies, such as exempting WIC recipients from disposable cup fees. At its core, BYO is the most entry-level, accessible strategy for food and retail packaging reduction. Businesses save on the cost of waste disposal and can engage in reusability without any significant initial investment. Consumers can avoid the added costs of a $2-$5 deposit on a food or drinkware item that they must also plan to return in a timely manner.
In a perfect world, every city and town would be equipped and financially capable of supporting the infrastructure of a comprehensive deposit-refund system (DRS). The reality is that, currently, DRS works extremely well in populated, well-defined geographic scales where a series of collection points can be established and a significant number of food service facilities can join. In many smaller towns and cities, DRS on this scale is likely not possible to establish in the immediate future, as the affordability of investing in reverse logistics and collection for fewer businesses and smaller populations can be a major challenge. With these hurdles in mind, BYO is a logical option that should be available to all consumers in food service and retail.
The biggest takeaway from the conversation around BYO and reusables is that there doesn’t need to be an all or nothing solution. BYO doesn’t have to be the only reusable option available. It can work in harmony with more structured, business-led reusable programs or compostable options. We’ve all heard that plastic pollution has no silver bullet solution, and that’s because complex waste problems require a series of innovative solutions. When governments limit the ability of citizens to bring their own containers by upholding restrictive food codes, they limit the ability of consumers to make progressive choices regarding their own waste habits. Seemingly small individual BYO actions can become a catalyst and a stepping stone to other important policy decisions that usher in system-wide change.
The goal of reusables is to provide healthier, sustainable replacements for disposables, with the same standard of sanitation. The growing trend of allowing businesses to establish a policy that outlines what they are willing to accept as a BYO container is a great tool to ensure workers are safe, and that customers understand the standards in place. Local health authorities have also released post-COVID sanitization guides that all confirm reusables as a safe packaging option. Accordingly, health and safety concerns should not be a justification to prohibit BYO outright through food codes or other regulations.
BYO is an important rung on the ladder of plastic waste reduction. It underlies the new and innovative solutions emerging in this space. Anyone can participate by bringing their own container without paying a deposit in a reusable scheme. It can even result in discounts for customers. Investment in DRS and wider deposit infrastructure is crucial for the future of the circular economy, but that doesn’t require a prohibition on BYO. These two strategies can work hand in hand to create a multi-level approach to single-use plastic and eliminating disposable waste.