Managing a restaurant’s waste is no cheap deal

I’ve worked a series of serving jobs in the GTA and noticed that when the dirty dishes went from the table to the dish pit, the remains all got tossed in the same bin. Your regular trash can with a regular green bag.

Napkins, bones, produce and candy wrappers all tossed in one big garbage soup and left to simmer in the dumpster until the next pickup day.

I asked the owner at one of these restaurants and was told it was too expensive for him to recycle properly, and other than returning beer bottles and cans, there wasn’t much he could do without financially being in trouble.

He wasn’t lying. Well, not completely. As it turns out, in Toronto, if a commercial building is of 500 square feet or more, the city is not responsible for your waste pickup, whether it be garbage, recycling or organics. You need to seek out an external contract with a waste management company.

David [who declined to give his last name], at BFI [ Browning Ferris Incorporated] Canada, a waste management company in Toronto, says that although it is impossible to give me an exact cost without looking at the logistics of the establishment, the range can be anywhere from around $100 a month to $1500 plus a month. The cost, he says depends on your postal code, the weight and amount of waste produced, as well as the different types of recyclables that need pickup, as cardboard and cans will not go in the same bin.

Problem is, restaurants have a loophole for these costs. David says there is nothing and no one forcing a restaurant to recycle anything, including organics, which they are a big producer of, the reason being how costly it is. He says a restaurant can easily cut the cost of their contract by almost half if they only have garbage pickup, and says this is the norm in Toronto — most restaurants simply cannot afford for a separate truck to pickup each type of waste they produce.

On the flip side, if your establishment is under 500 sq. ft., meaning you have a very small area, you will fall under the city’s waste management program. This is called the Yellow Bag program. But it isn’t cheap either. The free base package is a twice-a-week pickup, which, as Geoff Rathbone told me, is what most commercial establishments in Toronto use. Otherwise you are looking at $1200 to $1600 for a more frequent pickup.

There is a catch however, you can only put your trash in the ‘special’ Toronto yellow bags. They are $3.10 a pop and can only be purchased through the city of Toronto website, or at Home Hardware. The recycling and organic bins can also be purchased for $50 each, but cans, cardboard and bottles can be in clear bags instead.

Some quick math: one bag a day for 356 days is just about $1100. But there is a good chance you’ll need more than one-a-day as they are the same size as the green bags you get at the grocer’s for a lot cheaper. He says the high cost of the bag is to cover the cost of the pickup and the landfill cost.

So although I am not impressed with my former employers for hurting the environment, there is a small portion of my heart that feels for their wallets. I can understand that the small guy simply cannot afford to separate all his waste and pay for individual trucks to pick it up, a dilemma David says he deals with on a daily basis because although he would like to see more restaurants in Toronto recycling, ethically he can’t force them to do something that would put them out of business.


  1. That’s why we would watch the little guy in the (now closed) restaurant next door scurry out on garbage day and throw bags into our area, then run back.

  2. This is so ridiculous. Restaurants and businesses are the ones producing huge amounts of waste, and we need to bring them into the program.

  3. Geez, too bad the Waste Reserve Fund to enhance a batch of good 3R programs from a surcharge on the Keele Valley dump was up to multi-millions – maybe $160M or just 90 – I don’t know – till it was raided down to oblivion by the former Metro politicians I think in the early 90s. And so yes, the business owners do have some cause for complaint.

  4. Ms. Yamin has missed the entire point of the Yellow Bag program. While the businesses pay for each trash “bag” (which really means they pay for the collection service based on how many bags of trash they put out – comparing the cost of a yellow bag to a bag from the grocery store has no bearing), they get FREE recycling and organics pick up with it. So they actually have an INCENTIVE TO RECYCLE, as the more waste they divert to the recycling or organics stream, the fewer yellow bags they need. While it’s unfortunate that larger businesses (who also produce more waste) do not have this incentive, the yellow bag program is quite effective, as witnessed by the stacks of cardboard and bags of organic that get set out on Bloor and Spadina curbs each week, and other small business cooridors throughout the city.

  5. Perhaps an antidote to the lack of any really meaningful legal framework requiring restaurants to be ‘earth-friendly’ would be to legally require that such business be transparent about their waste management. By way of example, the restaurants that must pass city health standards and post as much in their storefronts might also be subject to a checklist that informs their patrons of their environmental practices, the most critical of which—waste disposal—they generally remain ignorant. Waiting in line for a table, while still frustrating, would then become the stage for an ethical dilemma, both for patrons and restauranteurs.

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