Reusable cups, vegan menus, local sourcing and circularity: the ecological transition has begun in Quebec cafés. Although the production of this drink has a strong environmental footprint, owners are trying to reduce the one they control, from supply to the customer’s cup (and plate).
Do not ask the barista at Café des Habitudes for a disposable cup. Neither does cow’s milk. Since Joanna Nisenbaum opened this establishment in Montreal’s La Petite-Patrie district in 2021, this ex-marketing professional has been advocating for change. And this change can only take place, according to her, outside of the facility. Waste should not be an option. Here, the coffee is consumed on the spot or is taken away in reusable containers such as the personal cups of customers or those recorded by La Vague, an organization of which she has been president since last March.
“It means that there are a lot of customers who take the time to stay,” says Joanna Nisenbaum, “because in fact, in the culture of the take-out sale, there is the culture of excessive productivity, of the rapidity. So much waste is generated to drink a coffee, what, five minutes? We’re here to say: the solutions exist. It’s easy, it doesn’t cost more, on the contrary, it doesn’t cost anything. »
While 400 establishments carry The Wave’s returnable cups across the province, few have completely turned their backs on disposable cups. Some have also decided to impose fees on customers. This is the case of the Paquebot cafés which, as of April 28, will apply a fee of 25 cents on each disposable cup and will pay the sum to La Vague.
“With the new regulations coming into force, it’s something that’s increasingly simmering in the minds of cafe owners,” notes Earth Day Canada Project Manager Emma Sarazin, who accompanies the merchants participating in the Zero Waste Challenge organized by the borough of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie.
In a blog post published last year, the International Reference Center for Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainable Transition (CIRAIG) recalls, however, that the advantage of using a reusable cup rather than a disposable cup depends the number of times the cup will be reused and the method used to clean the cup (reduce the amount of hot water and soap).
Beyond the cup, the ecological transition is also taking place in the kitchen. At Café des Habitudes, the approach is uncompromising. All the items on the short menu are vegan, local as much as possible, and the milks, exclusively plant-based. The establishment uses concentrated vegetable drinks developed by the Quebec company Dam. Distributed in bulk grocery stores, its products are also used in more than 80 cafes, including branches of Dispatch cafes, which estimate that 30,000 containers of oat milk will be saved from waste in a year.
“Here, in three days, we do your personal consumption in a year,” says Joanna Nisenbaum. As a business, the choices we make have so much more impact than your choice as a citizen. »
If these radical choices did not tarnish the financial vitality of the Café des Habitudes which, after a year and a half of activity, is proving profitable, the reality was different for the Café le 5e (today Café Jardin) in Verdun, which was one of the pioneering zero waste cafés in Montreal.
“We’ve evolved into something other than just vegan or zero waste,” says new co-owner Manuel Perrier. It was really a choice of survival. If we wanted to stay open, we had to make a decision. The environment is still at the heart of the store’s values, but since last summer, compostable cups (with a 50 cent fee) and cow’s milk have appeared.
In its new version, the Café Jardin continues to work to limit food waste.
In addition to reusing its waste, the café uses waste from Montreal micro-roaster Escape: the silver wrap. This thin film, which covers the coffee bean, comes off during roasting. Some companies use it as fertilizer, others in cosmetics, but the vast majority end up in landfills. Manuel Perrier is one of the first in Quebec, if not the first, to have developed a food use: he transforms it into flour that he uses in his pastries and cookies.
“It makes a great gluten-free flour that helps create special textures a bit like a gelling agent. We mix this with cashews in a pastry preparation with which we fill croissants and chocolatines. It’s a really amazing taste, reminiscent of roasted chestnuts, and it brings depth to the preparation. By dint of talking about it and selling it, it has been so successful that I have a hard time keeping up. »
The process is currently very artisanal. The cook produces it two or three times a week, in small quantities, but a Montreal company has shown interest in marketing it. As for the safety of the product, German researchers noted in a review of the literature published last October that “the studies available to date have concluded that no toxic effects of silver film have been observed or is not to be expected”.
Asked about the regulations, a Health Canada spokesperson indicated, via email, that “depending on the intended use, the silver film of the coffee fruit may require pre-market approval before being available on the market. Canadian market”. It states that “Health Canada has not received any inquiries regarding the regulatory classification of the silver skin of the coffee fruit, nor provided authorization for this food.”
If, in the region, local supply remains a challenge when you want to reduce your restaurant footprint, the ground is favorable to circularity, thinks Isabelle Huard, co-owner of the Paquebot café in Gaspé. “It’s a small medium. People are always ready to get involved in this area. »
The establishment wasted a lot of excess heated milk in the months after it opened, says Isabelle Huard. This was used to make homemade ricotta. As for the whey, it was used by the bakery across the street, which for a time served Paquebot bread. This disappeared when Isabelle Huard and her team arrived at their goal of zero dairy waste. Now, it is for her coffee grounds that she would like to find an outlet.
The fact remains that the stage with the most environmental impact is the production of the coffee itself (from 50% to 80% of the carbon footprint), underlines the CIRAIG.
“I have a colleague who always says: if you want to be green, stop making coffee,” says Isabelle Huard. For her, however, it is possible to reduce this footprint by choosing producers carefully. “Monocultures are very hard on the land and on the ecosystems, whereas if it’s in the mountains, on family farms, where there are other types of vegetation growing around… There’s this aspect over which we have some control. »