Brothers Baljit and Sarbjit Singh Sabharwal show off Styrofoam plate alternatives — made from sugarcane — they hope vendors will use at this year’s Surrey Vaisakhi Parade. (Photo: Amy Reid)

VIDEO: Surrey brothers work toward a ‘Foam-Free Vaisakhi’

With environment in mind, siblings encourage Vaisakhi vendors to ditch styrofoam for compostable alternatives

Two Surrey siblings have a simple, but powerful vision for what they’ve dubbed a “Foam-Free Vaisakhi.”

It’s a move they estimate could divert as many as two to three million foam items from ending up in the landfill this year alone.

“We want all the vendors to think about using different kind of materials for the food serving,” explained Baljit Singh Sabharwal, noting 200 vendors are expected at this year’s celebration. “We’re looking at getting away from foam. No foam, no plastic – let’s go to sugarcane.”

The annual Surrey Vaisakhi Parade – the largest such celebration in North America – is scheduled for April 21 this year and is expected to draw 500,000 people to Newton streets. Free food is a tradition at the event and, of course, that means thousands upon thousands of plates.

Baljit and brother Sarbjit say they’ve been serving their food on compostable plates for years, but are concerned about the large amount of Styrofoam they see at the event.

“We want to make a big change,” said Baljit, noting the Styrofoam used to serve an estimated 30,000 people at the first parade in 1981 is still sitting in the landfill today – and will remain there for generations.

But they’re taking it a step further than advocating for a switch from foam to paper products. They’re encouraging vendors to use “sugarcane bagasse” products that typically decompose within 60 days, a far cry from Styrofoam, which stays in landfills for hundreds of years.

“It’s a renewable and sustainable fast-growing plant source,” said Baljit, “and can be sent to Surrey’s recently opened Biofuel Facility to be converted to compost and fuel.”

“I feel that this goal can really change a lot of minds,” chimed in Sarbjit, “and keep our city blossoming into a beautiful and vibrant eco-friendly society, yet still a culturally engaging one.”

Sarbjit praised parade organizers for their “immaculate” clean-up job every year.

A photo of Styofoam products in garbage bags after a past Surrey Vaisakhi Parade. Photo from brothers’ presentation.

“I think sometimes the roads are better than before the events, that’s how clean it is,” said Sarbjit. “Our concern, when we started looking at the actual problem and seeing what’s in the garbage bags – what’s in them, almost entirely, are contaminated Styrofoam products like plates and cups and the plastic. That’s a concern. That was something we really started taking to heart.”

The brothers are hoping for big buy-in from the community this year, but have set a five-year target to see 100 per cent participation from vendors by way of an awareness campaign as well as connecting the public with companies who sell the products.

On Monday, the siblings, who have run their CopyTek business in Newton since 1993, were given a $5,000 grant from the City of Surrey to help in their effort.

The Sabharwals are heavily involved in the community, from the Surrey Board to Trade to the city’s Multicultural Advisory Board, to the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce.

Sarbjit, today, is a member of Surrey’s Environmental Sustainability Advisory Committee (ESAC), which is where the brothers made their “foam free” pitch last month.

According to the brothers, ESAC chair and Surrey Councillor Mike Starchuk is “one of their biggest supporters.”

Starchuk agreed. He said the brothers’ efforts are timely for a few reasons.

The first was a newsletter from Metro Vancouver earlier this year that said Styrofoam was to be banned at all of the region’s transfer station.

“So boy, talk about timing,” said Starchuk.

New regulations adopted by the regional district will soon double tipping fees at Lower Mainland disposal facilities when a load of trash is composed of more than 20 per cent expanded polystyrene packaging, commonly known as Styrofoam, the material used to pack and distribute electronic devices and other products.

See also: Keep styrofoam out of your garbage or pay the price

The surcharge, which takes effect July 1, has not received much attention since they were approved by Metro directors last year, but the regional district is planning to publicize the change during the run-up to implementation.

A Metro Vancouver report said expanded polystyrene represents one to two per cent of all garbage by weight in the region, with 10,500 tonnes dumped every year. By volume, it is “one of the largest material categories in the waste stream without a disposal ban,” the report stated.

And, Styrofoam is not an acceptable item in Surrey’s recycling carts and must be taken to a local recycling depot for proper disposal.

Starchuk said another timely happen chance was the recent opening of the Surrey Biofuel Facility on March 9 – which is able to process sugarcane and paper products.

The facility turns food and organic waste to fuel that can run the city’s garbage trucks.

See also: VIDEO: Inside look at Surrey’s new $68M biofuel facility that turns food to fuel

homelessphoto

(Surrey Biofuel Facility. Photo: Amy Reid)

“You can walk through Vaisakhi, have your food, and enjoy the fact that these times being collected are going to end up in our biofuel facility to be repurposed,” Starchuk noted.

Starchuk revealed he’s also been talking with city staff to see if the oil used to cook food at this year’s Vaisakhi event could be taken to the Port Kells plant.

“We can definitely process that as well,” Starchuk said. “It’s my goal that we can provide some containers so we can capture the oil people are using in fryers…. In 60 days in our biofuel facility, it’s gone.”

But it seems the brothers – and the city – aren’t content in stopping there.

The Sabharwals are encouraging the City of Surrey to create a polystyrene replacement plan city-wide.

It’s not a pipe dream, said Starchuk.

“Part of their presentation to ESAC was for staff to come back with a report to find out what it is the city can do with this endeavour moving it forward in the big picture,” the councillor explained. “Maybe it can happen at other events?”

But, would Surrey take steps like other municipalities have, banning plastic bags or straws, with an environmental goal in mind?

“Just banning a straw or a plastic bag doesn’t work,” Starchuk mused. “You have to educate the public to let them know what their options are. We’ve seen examples around other places where they ban things and two years later the ban is gone and they’re back using the item because they didn’t think it out very well.

“I’d like to think with what we’re doing and what the report back to us will be, that it will be a flow-chart as to how we can achieve those things,” Starchuk continued.

“If you’ve got stock in a polystyrene company, I’d consider selling them now,” he added. “I think the world is right on that tipping point, we’re so close. That other option just makes so much more sense, and the price point is getting so close.”

To get in touch with the Sabharwals and for information on where to get the sugarcane products, search for Foam Free Vaisakhi on Facebook, or call 778-863-5479.

For more on the parade visit surreyvaisakhiparade.com.

With files from Black Press

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