Words: Marissa Ramnanan
Photography: Julien Ponsard-Kurdyla, Marissa Ramnanan and Gregory Caltabanis

Dominique Smith, co-founder and engagement coordinator of HydroFlora, sticks his hand into the vermiponics compost bin, and digs out a potato writhing with worms.

“This is what we mean by rotten food being broken down with worms,” he explained. “[They] procreate, and the worms break down the food so it’s usable for the plants, and vice versa.”

HydroFlora is a working group based out of Concordia University’s Greenhouse. Their goal is to educate the community about urban agriculture and hydroponics – the process of growing plants in nutrient-saturated water without the use of soil.

“[We are] a social enterprise that focuses on blending the aesthetics of sustainability with the educational prowess of it. [We want] to bring it to the people, and make it understandable at a personal level,” said Smith.

Dominique Smith, co-founder and engagement coordinator of HydroFlora, shows off a potato in mid-vermi-decomposition. Photo by Julien Ponsard-Kurdyla.

There’s a buzzing electrical sound in the small room of the greenhouse designated for their organization. HydroFlora’s nutrient system emits a faint trickling of water as it feeds the plants with material extracted through its vermiponics composter.

Halved basketballs with green plants spilling out of them hang from the ceiling like fruit. Objects like these are for sale to help fund HydroFlora’s operations.

At the back of the room sit two big blue bins filled with water. There are pipes and tubes running from them that connect to white circular hardware store buckets filled with plants on the right side.

In other containers, thousands of worms munch their way through mostly plant-based waste, turning it into compost.

“You can basically break down your food waste, pump a little water in there, and put the right microorganisms in there. We use red wiggler [worms] to break it down and we feed them coffee grounds, eggshells and banana peels,” Smith said about the vermiponics system.

According to him, the most important thing is to feed the worms the right foods so they can create the chemicals for the plants to absorb.

“We pour water into that compost, and what gets extracted is a nutrient tea that gets channelled throughout the whole system,” Smith explained.

The tea is transported to the plants in that room through the tubing system which is used to feed them. And when those plants die, they use the brown leaves as compost material to feed the worms, continuing the cycle.

People think they need to spend thousands of dollars to grow their own food but they don’t, Smith said. “You can go to Canadian Tire, you get a bin, you get some tubes, you work it out, and you can do it yourself.”

Dominique Smith, co-founder and engagement coordinator of HydroFlora, believes that with a bit of work and the right equipment, anyone can grow their own food. Photo by Julien Ponsard-Kurdyla

HydroFlora’s room in the greenhouse is purely experimental and educational. For example, they let tiny bugs roam on the plants for the purpose of teaching pest-management.

They even have a tiny pineapple in one of their pots which, according to Smith, will take about two years to grow to full size.

HydroFlora creates almost no waste, and is largely independent from other resources. They grow their own food and plants, and continuously reuse their waste.

Thinking sustainably and going zero-waste

Over in Verdun, Café le 5ième is also experimenting with novel ways to reduce waste and promote sustainability — all while keeping their customers well-caffeinated.

The café brands itself as a zero-waste business. Since opening in 2017, owners Dorian Zéphir and Vincent Dessureault have done everything in their power to decrease the waste their café produces.

“I think [sustainability] is a must — it’s illogical not to think sustainably,” said Dessureault.

From sourcing their food from suppliers that use little-to-no disposable plastic packaging to using reusable straws, Café le 5ième works hard at setting an example for how a small business can commit to sustainable practices.

They also decided to go with a completely plant-based menu, following research from past years that has indicated plant-based products can have lower environmental impacts, compared to animal products.

Café le 5ième owners Dorian Zéphir (left) and Vincent Dessureault (right) translate their sustainable lifestyle choices into their Verdun-based business. Photo by Marissa Ramnanan.

Although, running a sustainable business certainly comes with some difficulties.

Dessureault explained one of the hardest moves they made to facilitate their zero-waste policy was eliminating single-use takeout cups. It may seem like a logical decision for this type of business, but he said they ultimately lose money because of it.

“Most coffee shops work on maybe 50 per cent of their revenue from takeout. The culture here of takeout is single-use cups. So going with this decision was kind of hard. But it was this or nothing for us – it was the purpose of our business.”

Instead, Café le 5ième encourages customers to bring their own cups and mugs. Every time someone does, they donate 25 cents to a non-profit organization called La Vague, whose goal is to find sustainable solutions in the coffee shop industry.

Café le 5ième has also implemented a $1 deposit system on glass mason jars that customers can use for their take-out drinks.

“If you come back with the mason jar, we’ll give you the dollar back,” Dessureault said. Though, he admits, most people don’t bring them back.

But, unreturned jars are not Café le 5ième’s most pressing concern – printed receipts present one of the biggest obstacles to truly reaching zero-waste.

“We still have the printed bills and receipts that we are [required] under the law of the government to print every [time]. And, unfortunately, none of the receipts are recyclable,” he said.

Even so, Dessureault and Zéphir’s hard work pays off on garbage day: every week they only have a small plastic bag of waste to throw out.

Café le 5ième weighs their garbage before they dispose of it to better understand their waste management methods. Yearly, the business throws out about 45 kg of garbage, 300 kg of recycling and 750 kg of compost and coffee grounds. To put those numbers into context, according to Community Research Connections, which is a Canadian organization that researches sustainable development, the average household in Canada produces an estimated 980 kg of garbage every year.

Dessureault said most of Café le 5ième’s weekly waste actually comes from the customers themselves. The café has a small garbage bin in the bathroom, and customers often use it to dispose of the garbage they walked in with.

I think [sustainability] is a must — it’s illogical not to think sustainably.
– Café le 5ième co-owner Vincent Dessureault

“I think these little initiatives can domino into bigger things,” said Faisal Shennib, Concordia University’s environmental coordinator. “One, it shows that it’s possible to run, let’s say, a zero-waste café and be successful, economically. That’s an important model to see replicated, and to see that it attracts people.”

Shennib said new policies need to be put in place to keep people and, more explicitly, larger corporations accountable.

Lobbying for change — one wine bottle at a time

SAQ Consigne, a Quebec-based citizens movement, is working toward solving a different environmental issue.

“We have here in Quebec a major crisis with our sorting centres and our recycling industry,” explained Denis Blaquière, SAQ Consigne’s spokesperson. “And one of the culprits is glass. We put glass into our recycling bins at home, and when all of this material is transported in trucks, [the] glass breaks into millions of little pieces, contaminates paper, contaminates plastic, and the glass itself gets contaminated.”

Because of this the material is unusable and ends up in landfills, Blaquière added.

SAQ Consigne is pushing for a policy change at the Société des alcools du Québec, the province’s liquor board, that would implement a deposit-return system on wine bottles.

“The best way to take out as much glass as possible from our recycling bin is to have a deposit-return system. Because, 50 per cent of glass that ends up in our little recycling bins are bottles from the SAQ,” said Blaquière.

To put pressure on the government, SAQ Consigne has called on Quebec citizens to bring back their glass wine bottles to their local SAQ. Blaquière said if people would do this in large numbers, this kind of peaceful protest would make a huge statement.

Shennib agreed the type of policy change SAQ Consigne is after “would have a sweeping impact.”

SAQ Consigne has called on Quebecers to return their glass wine bottles to their local SAQ. The organization hopes to convince the province’s liquor board to adopt more sustainable practices, such as a deposit-return system on wine bottles. Photo by Gregory Caltabanis

“Even if you don’t care about the environmental impact, if you care about the economy you should also care about waste management,” said Shennib. “Because, one, there are so many job opportunities in creating a circular economy; there is so much money literally being thrown into a hole in the ground. It’s kind of crazy. And then, it also costs a lot of money to make those giant holes in the ground, and keep the stuff in it. So it’s just a really inefficient way to manage resources.”

While initiatives like HydroFlora, Café le 5ième, and SAQ Consigne hope to affect change on a larger scale, Shennib said individuals can take action toward sustainability too.

“Always explore what’s possible for you,” said Shennib. “[Practicing sustainability] should be an empowering process.”