The Forks dishes up classic way to combat waste — and save money

One of Winnipeg's most beloved public places is getting drastic with plastics and other waste by serving up some tradition.

Food hall transitioning from disposable dishes to ceramic plates and silverware

The food hall at the Forks, which offers 13 eateries, sees an average of 4,000 customers a day. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

One of Winnipeg's most beloved public places is getting drastic with plastics and other waste by serving up some tradition.

The Forks Market has done away with disposable plates, cups, cutlery and other containers, replacing them with 4,500 ceramic plates and bowls, along with glassware and stainless steel silverware.

"It doesn't sound particularly revolutionary, but it kind of is," said Clare MacKay, vice-president of corporate and community services with The Forks North Portage Partnership. 

"We're getting rid of those single-use plastic containers … and we're actually taking it back to washing people's dishes," she said.

The food hall at the Forks now uses real dishes. (Jaison Empson/CBC)
Staff clean off plates at the busing station at the Forks and then send them for washing. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

As part of the initiative, which started in early May, all garbage bins around its food hall have been removed. Instead, visitors leave their trays for staff to collect or bring them to a busing station — a long counter set up behind The Common beer and wine kiosk.

Staff sort everything — waste, recyclables and compostables — into bins then cart the dirty dishes to a new washing station. 

The Forks food hall began phasing out disposable cups and plates last month in favour of real, washable dishes, to cut back on waste and the environmental impact. 1:53

The changes initially confused some, MacKay said, but she said it will soon become normal.

'Throwaway living'

It can be a slow process to change behaviours around disposable products that have become entrenched in recent decades. The shift to "throwaway living" can be traced back to the 1950s.

Back then, an article in Life Magazine raved about disposable products — designed for a single use then tossed out of your life — as a way to cut down on chores and create a simpler life with more leisure time.

The environmental impact on the Earth and the financial burden on municipalities from decades of ballooning waste and cheap plastics — polluting oceans and beaches and poisoning the soil — is now well documented.

A Life Magazine story from Aug. 1, 1955, celebrates the ease of disposable items. (Life Magazine)

"We've all seen the disturbing images of fish, sea turtles, whales and other wildlife being injured or dying because of plastic garbage in our oceans. Canadians expect us to act," said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna during an announcement Monday in Toronto about Canada's move to eliminate some single-use plastics.

The federal government plans to ban single-use plastics by as early as 2021. A full list of what will be banned isn't finalized, but a government source told CBC News that it could include cotton swabs, drink stirrers, balloon sticks as well as fast-food containers and cups made of expanded polystyrene. 

Zero garbage goal

When The Forks first moved to reusable plates and cutlery, they considered having visitors dispose of their recyclables and organic waste themselves.

Instead, they decided to create a busing station and painted a series of arrows and images on the floors of the concourse along each side of the food hall, directing people to it.

The concourse along each side of the food hall dining area has a series of arrows and images painted on the floor, directing people to the bussing station. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

"People think they know what's compostable but they often don't, and it will contaminate the whole batch if someone puts something in that doesn't belong there," MacKay said.

The new system uses more water, but high-efficiency dishwashers mean it's still cost-effective and environmentally friendly, said MacKay.

The switch to dishes is part of The Forks' ongoing effort to reach Target Zero: zero garbage, zero water waste and zero carbon emissions.

About a decade ago, the old ventilation system was replaced with geothermal heating and cooling.

As a result, greenhouse gas emissions have been cut by 42 per cent, or about 448 tonnes, and heating costs have dropped 14 per cent. That has resulted in saving of about $200,000 every year.

Waste vegetable oil collected from restaurants at the Forks is used to power vehicles like the skating trail Zamboni and all-terrain vehicles. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Other Target Zero initiatives include:

  • Low-flow toilets and waterless urinals, saving more than two million litres of water annually.
  • Rainwater collected in tanks on the parkade used on ice skating surfaces.
  • Irrigation systems now use river water.
  • Waste vegetable oil from the restaurants power vehicles like the skating trail Zamboni, saving $11,000 annually.
The Forks' Clare MacKay says the change to real dishes is part of the drive toward Target Zero waste, which makes both environmental and financial sense. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Financial incentive

The Forks looked into alternative electricity sources as well, but found there wasn't enough wind for turbines and the cost of solar electricity is still too high, MacKay said. 

"We look at where the two greens meet, so it's not just about being green for the environment but about what is also good financially," she said.

She and Dave Pancoe, manager of special projects at The Forks, said they were inspired on the dish front by a CBC story in August 2018 about the success of Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto.

The mall's food court used to generate 120 bags of garbage a day, but reduced it to just three bags a day after it began replacing disposable plates, cups and cutlery with reusable dishware in 2012. 

That drop was accomplished even though the food court serving 24,000 customers a day. Now, staff wash about 75,000 dishes and 53,000 pieces of cutlery a week.

The Forks is still waiting for some ceramic bowls to arrive, so compostable containers are used in their place. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Forks officials visited Toronto to see how it worked and adopted a number of the same steps.

There's not enough data yet on the switchover to dishware at The Forks, which sees more than four million visitors annually but is still much smaller than the Yorkdale mall. 

The Forks has an average of 4,000 customers a day at its 13 eateries in the food hall. They expect the dishware change to reduce waste by 35 per cent, or $12,000 annually, said MacKay.

Some tenants at The Forks are still transitioning to the new system so visitors will notice some disposable containers.

However, the majority of those containers, including napkins, are already compostable. 

Dishes are rinsed before being sent through a high-efficiency dishwashing unit. (Jaison Empson/CBC)
Food scraps are collected and wheeled out for composting. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The Forks' initiative actually takes things a step further than the Yorkdale mall: all the organic waste collected at the market is composted on site.

"So we're not trucking it away and creating a large carbon footprint," Pancoe said.

That has also resulted in savings of about $35,000 a year, about half of their annual waste removal costs. 

Machines break down the organic matter, then the compost is spread in flower beds, the prairie garden, public orchard and other spaces around the 56-acre Forks site.

Making it the norm

Mel Dominguez said every cafeteria and shopping mall food court should use real cutlery. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Jessie Westers and Mel Dominguez, visiting from Lethbridge, Alta., applauded the move to the real dishes.

"It makes for a nicer dining experience and it just feels good to know that we're not throwing a bunch of stuff in the trash when we're out eating," Westers said.

Dominguez agreed and wished reusable dinnerware was the norm. 

"Real cutlery? That's amazing," said Dominguez. "Every cafeteria should have it. Food courts at the mall should have it."

Though public response is mostly positive, there was resistance from a few vendors and tenants, whose rent was increased to account for the dishes.

But in the end, they, too, will see savings, MacKay said.

"They were all individually buying their own things. So they were having to buy in bulk and continuously order. This way they don't even have to think about it," she said.

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email:


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