Zero Waste Canada sits down with Lisa Papania of Lupii Café, a Zero Waste coffee shop located in Vancouver. Although born as a coffee shop meant to provide a living example of responsible business, simply referring to Lupii as a coffee shop would be misleading. Find out how Lupii Café epitomizes the phrase “Zero Waste is the journey more than the destination”.
When you walk in you quickly realize that this place is not quite the same. That this place is not quite comparable to the standard coffee shop vibe you may come across virtually anywhere else in North America. Once you are greeted by the owners, you quickly realize why. Lisa and Daniel Papania’s “bottom line” for their coffee shop is building community. Imagine that for a business model.
Located in the Champlain Heights neighborhood of Vancouver, Lupii has become a source of community interaction through Zero Waste. Owners Lisa and Daniel are both instructors at Simon Frasier University, running this initiative in their spare time. Whether it be via salvaging otherwise discarded food in order to host free community dinners and free Saturday produce giveaways, providing rigorously Zero Waste and vegan catering services, preparing produce boxes for delivery or educational programs and workshops, Lupii Café is first and foremost all about people, utilizing their space to offer opportunities for community interaction and the building of relationships.
When we come in to have a chat with Lisa, we are welcomed into a facility where everything in sight has been either revitalized after prior use from a previous owner, or creatively repurposed to perform a different function than originally intended. All of Lupii’s equipment are not only re-usable, but themselves re-used or second hand.
Our conversation with Lisa begins by her going through her story and how this café came to be.
“So for the last 20 or so years I have been involved in higher education, specifically around social responsibility and what business actually is and does. It seemed to me when I was doing my MBA that there was a lack of responsibility. There was a whole bunch of people who were going into organizations and it was the mentality more generally that as soon as people were hidden behind some organization or some other name, they acted like they didn’t have any say, or input, or responsibility for any of the actions that were taking place within the organization.
So I try to teach my students how to go and be better. And lots of things happened.
The first one is that over time, the more I was telling them this, the more frustrated they would become because they would say ‘you are asking us to do this but there are no models. I look out in the world and there’s nothing for us to see that this is how or why it should be done’. All of these companies that we depict as brilliant, these are the pinnacle of successes, of the people that we look to, and so you are asking us to do these things but that goes against what we are understanding to be the make-up of success.
The second thing is I teach my students how to create products, but it’s really difficult for them to start stuff.
Here in BC we once had a matching fund, that when you wanted to start an entrepreneur enterprise the local government would give you a certain amount of money to get you on your feet. This is no longer the case and as soon as they did that the banks said ‘we’re not getting involved anymore with this either’. And so they suddenly made these huge barriers for anybody to actually start anything. And the consequences of not investing anything in entrepreneurs are that we don’t value entrepreneurship. We don’t value the idea of actually solving any problems. We look to past successes, and they are not actually successes. They are just models that we understand and we emulate.
So if you try to say I want to do a better coffee shop, they say ok well how’s it going to look like? Well ok Starbucks. It has to look exactly like Starbucks. If it doesn’t look like Starbucks we don’t know what it is and we can’t fund you.
And if it looks like Starbucks we have a model and can figure out how much money you are going to be making, in what timeframe and can assess so on and so forth…
So my students who were going out there and saying ok well I can come up with an idea, were finding it terrifyingly difficult to be able to find a place to start, they were just finding barrier after barrier after barrier. And so it became increasingly urgent to me that when the opportunity presented itself to create something that was the example that I wanted my students to emulate, that I needed to take that chance.
And so when this space became available for the first time in 30 years, my only thought was, if we don’t do something, it’s going to become another store like everywhere else in the world and I can’t let that happen. I keep telling my students that we have to do something, that we have to be involved. And I don’t really know what it’s gonna be but we don’t really have a coffee shop in this area. So I phoned Daniel and said ‘do you want to run a coffee shop?’ And I was really hoping he’d say ‘no that’s ridiculous’. But he didn’t.
So this was a place where I figured I could let my students set-up their shops, where I could get a leg up. When we started the retail space I said you can have the space for free if you want to try out running a retail store. The other thing was that I actually wanted there to be better business. I wanted to be invested in my community. I wanted to be that organization.”
Lisa proceeds to go through the make up of her store. As she goes through every item, what stands out is that there is a story to be told behind each and every one of them.
The bar counter, shelves and condiment stand are designed specifically for Lupii with plywood recovered from a North Shore store, after the re-outfitting of their site. The legs of all their coffee shop tables collected and repurposed from a steel recycling plant. Chairs, tables and work counters made from the discarded basketball gymnasium floor of a local school on Commercial Drive. The characteristic overhead lights made directly by Lisa using hemp string and a second hand yoga ball. The ventilation system above itself made of piping that her husband Daniel reclaimed. The remaining furniture either donated or passed along from the Papania family after 20 years in their possession. The water heater exterior, previously a cabinet in a hundred year old house on the West End. The curtain in the back of the shop (meant to provide a quieter working area) with drapes originally from a banner of the 2011 Women’s Soccer World Cup. The storage compartment in the back of the shop with shelves made from painted wooden pallets (a particular item otherwise destined for landfill in Vancouver). Re-usable milk crates from a dairy farm no longer in need of them, utilized to transport items to and from all catering events run by Lupii. The trolley utilized by Lupii for catering and Saturday community produce giveaway, itself made from discarded wooden slates and wheels claimed from a customer of Lupii working in a local hospital, where they found no more use for them. The towels in Lupii’s washroom are made by Lisa’s sister using swimming towels, most of which were Lisa’s daughter’s from when she would go swimming as a child. Lupii’s original set of napkins were made with curtains of pure cotton that Lisa brought with her from South Africa where she is originally from. While close to 100 meters of fabric “that was being ditched by one of the most famous athletic brands in Vancouver” was used to make “cozies” that could be wrapped around their containers as an alternative to the standard cardboard sleeve offered in coffee shops across North America
All items purchased are purchased in bulk and stored in airtight re-usable olive containers. All the way down to cups, cutlery and plates, none of which you will find resemble that of the person sitting next to you. All of them themselves with their own story. Everything was once something or somewhere else.
“Everything was previously loved” as Lisa more eloquently puts it.
But Lisa makes the point of clarifying how “we don’t just go ‘ok how do we take this for free’. It was about ‘how do we showcase how amazingly valuable this is’”.
“So everything that we have here was something else before. Not because it’s cheap. It’s much more expensive to get wasted products and when we get something that somebody else is throwing away (we don’t get anything unless it is being thrown away), we get stuff that keeps being taken off the shelf because they keep getting more and more and more. So when we buy, we get that stuff which is not perfect. So we pay potentially less for it at the point of sale, but then I have to invest 4, 5, 10 times more in terms of resources to actually get this stuff ready to be able to be sold. So I’m paying maybe 5/6 times what other people are paying just because I’m putting it back into a system that can then be consumed. So waste is not cheaper and what I’m wanting to show to people is that the waste is valuable, the waste is actually much more valuable than they thought it was to start off with.”
But as Lisa herself puts it, Zero Waste is about much more than just the numbers, the three R’s, diversion rates and reduction figures. “It’s not just about ‘not having the plastic’. It’s about understanding the impact of everything that we are doing”. It is about much more than just waste.
What Lupii means by Zero Waste is once again best explained via a story, the stories of how Lupii purchases.
“Obviously there’s lots of things that we can improve. I’m not for half a second suggesting that what we do is brilliant and great. Everything is as green as it can be but that doesn’t mean that it’s good. It doesn’t mean that it’s right. It doesn’t mean that we’re done. So Zero Waste doesn’t mean ‘oh now we’ve reached the point where we don’t have any waste within our system.’ Like ok that was actually easy. That was a bit of a no-brainer.
The Zero Waste comes in when we have, so for example one of the first things that we did because all of our stuff is used, so we got a dishwasher of which I think there are maybe two in all of Vancouver. So Daniel went to pick it up from whichever sports club and we didn’t quite know how to work it and so we phoned the one guy who knew how to work it because it’s just not something many people know what to do with. He came and helped Daniel install it and this guy was starting to provide us with the dishwasher fluid. And so the third time the guy came back to give us new dishwasher fluid, I said to him ‘can you please take back and re-use your container?’. He said ‘I’m not taking this!’ and he stormed out and left all his stuff.
Daniel was furious with me. He’s like ‘how are we going to get dishwasher fluid? There’s only one guy!’. And I was like ‘but this is the Zero Waste to me’. If this guy is going to come in and say ‘I’ve made this industrial plastic and I am not responsible for it, and you can just accumulate all of this stuff and I don’t care’, then that goes against what we stand for. So that’s Zero Waste. Zero Waste is every single decision that we make, it is how do we make that decision better. And ya Daniel was serious but then three calls later we found another supplier and it wasn’t that devastating.
And I believe that is one of the big things that we try and explain to people is that we have all of these mental barriers about ‘how we can’t’ and ‘why we can’t’. The first manager we hired to work with us. His first job was to go all around Vancouver and find the people that we want to do business with. Who are the people that have the kinds of goods that we want to be able to access, who are these that have good practices or are actually willing to change their practices?
And so when I was asking him to go out and find out from people how they would want to interact with us, they’d go ‘well we don’t do that’. And so he was going ‘we just can’t do this’. And I’m like no no. That’s not the answer, the answer is not that we are not going to do it, the answer is that we need to find other people that we can do business with.
And so we ended up going out to Chilliwack and further afield to people who were actually willing to work with us in terms of zero packaging and making sure that they would reduce the amount of waste that they were producing so we could get transparency through the supply chain and we would make it so that people were being compensated properly for not putting effluent into the water and so on.
So there were people that we could find to work with us but it was a matter of actually going out there and saying not ‘oh this is the easiest way to do it’ but ‘what is the way that we want to be able to do it’. And if you’re not finding an answer it’s because you haven’t looked for it. That’s how we purchase. If you can’t tell us where your stuff is from then we can’t buy it from you.
And we started off only vegetarian because I trusted the systems that I thought were in place until I actually started looking into it. So you hear what’s going on in Chilliwack where for one the cows are being mistreated. But in order to be able to produce enough money for these guys to keep in business, and they get paid for what they supply right, they don’t get paid for what is sold. So these guys are milking every single cow, just so they can get paid per liter of what they supply. And they can’t sell the amount of milk that we’re actually producing in BC, so they flush it down the drain. Because they are paid not for sales to us, they get paid for sales to the milk marketing board. And so every time we were buying milk we were encouraging that. I’m like ‘I can’t participate in that’. Yes it’s ethics and how much carbon and methane is being put into the atmosphere as a result of cows and so on. But every time I buy from that system I am contributing to this enormous amount of waste.
So it was going through every single purchasing decision that we were going to make. What does this encourage? What does this allow? What does this require in the system? How am I perpetuating it and how do I stop it?
So you know, that’s Zero Waste. Zero Waste is not a set of practices, Zero Waste is not ‘oh ok we turn our lights off when we are not using them, we try to re-capture what we can, we don’t have compostables’ and so on. Zero Waste is a matter of what is my impact? What is my weight in this? What is the consequence of me making this purchasing decision? Not even on ‘my impact’, but what does this encourage in the system? What does this allow? What does this make someone think that I am allowing him or requiring him to do in the future? And so understanding that we have an obligation every single time we do anything.
And that if we can’t support a system it is up to us, not somebody else, to change behavior. We have to be the people that are involved in the change. And then we support all of the other people that we feel are already doing that. And there are more and more. But you have to go out of your way to find them and that’s ok. But to be complicit, it doesn’t change anything. To go ‘oh ok well I am aware of that. Now that I’m aware of it it’s ok’. You know, if you’re aware of it then you are aware that you can change. So that’s why we do what we do.”
“At the moment, what is happening from an economic perspective, is that as soon you go out in the market and say to somebody, ‘I want your stuff and it needs to be the cheapest in the market’. The only way to do everything as cheaply as possible is to make sure that all of your inputs are as cheap as possible. So you don’t filter your water. You use the worst chemicals that are possible. You fertilize and use pesticides without any kind of understanding of the toxins that are involved. And the most important thing is that you don’t pay. It’s really very important for people to understand that as soon as you ask for things at the cheapest cost, one of the biggest costs of that is people. People are then asked to work longer, work more and you pay them less.
So when we say Zero Waste we’re not talking about ‘oh eliminating plastic ’. What we are saying is ‘what are we doing every time we ask for something at the lowest price?’ What is the price that we are requiring in the system in order to enable you to have that? What are we demanding of the planet? What are we demanding of people? What are we doing to poorer nations?
Zero Waste is about us saying ‘what is the consequence of me buying this thing?’. And if I’m doing something that is at the end of the day making all of this suffering and all of this waste all the way down the line then how do I stop? That’s what Zero Waste is.
Resources have value. The water, the land that went it to them. You put human labor into it and we have this thing that is now our finished product that is at the pinnacle of its value. As soon as you sell that thing the value either goes to zero or it just drops. You keep the value constant if you continue to use it.
And there is now this movement to upcycle, but very rarely do we actually take something and say ‘ok this was good wood, we can use this and make something more valuable’. At the moment we are putting as few resources as we possibly can to make really really crap stuff. So if there was no value inherent in it to start off with then why is anyone going to put more value in it to make it more valuable after product purchase? So we have this incessant cycle. Even recycling is not a thing to a large extent. Most of the plastic we create in the world is actually not put back into plastic. The best we can hope for is downcycling, taking something and making something that has a lesser value. So taking a t-shirt that you pay $10 for and now making it into a grocery bag that you actually would pay a buck for.
But we actually re-use 93% of all bottles that were ever produced by the Canadian Beverage Association. They are actually kept in play, not broken down, not recycled, not constituted back into bottles, they are just washed and re-used. 93%. And so that’s really what we want. We want to keep things in play, those things never lose any value we just need to keep them in play.
We’ve actually lost what it means to provide value. We’ve entered into an era at the moment where everybody has so much and we need nothing. But the accumulation of stuff in it of itself has become valuable, it has become a basic status symbol. So we say we are Zero Waste, but what that means is we actually have to acknowledge our role in the system and be able to explain to other people what their role is in the system, and that’s been a hugely challenging journey over the last three years.”
As we continue to speak with Lisa, as we continue to learn about Lupii’s experience, by simply interacting with this facility, it is increasingly evident how Zero Waste is about so much more than just waste reduction.
To simply run through the items in her store and tell the story of where they came from, our conversation with Lisa touched upon her origins in South Africa to her 20 years in higher education. We learnt that Lisa has a sister, a daughter and a husband as equally committed to the cause. We have gone from a local school, hospital and sports club, down to large retailers to reclaim materials which otherwise would have indeed been wasted. Our conversation runs from the fundamentals of business, the market, of supply and demand, passes through modern environmentalism and social justice, all the way down to our relationship with our neighbors, our behaviors, our values and sense of worth as individuals within our communities. The word that comes up most often as Lisa runs through each item is “reused” or “reclaimed”. Not once did we hear the terms “recyclable” or “compostable”. Lupii Café very simply follows the logic of the Zero Waste Hierarchy, focusing on reduction by continuously re-thinking their daily purchasing choices. Every single decision respects this logic.
Perhaps most importantly, we learn about Lisa’s knowledge of, and relationship with her customers that we feel comfortable saying is unlike that of North America’s typical coffee shop. We are not aware of many coffee shops who know but one single thing about their customers other than what latte they would like. We are not aware of many coffee shops who have customers come in and donate items, furniture, or fabric for the benefit of the store. We are not aware of many coffee shops that have these relationships with other sectors and are presented with these opportunities to add value to their business.
Lupii’s model is itself a choice deeply rooted in community-based concerns. The space now occupied by Lupii previously was run by a man named Alan Wong, owner of a video store.
“This is just a walkable residential neighborhood, there are kids and families all over this place, yet this was a bit of a dodgy strip mall. But this video store was the safe space in Champlain Heights. Alan who managed the video store, he knew everybody. He knew their phone numbers, he knew their email addresses, he knew which movies they’d seen, he knew everything about them! He was the one place, he was the one person that if your child was here you knew they were known. You knew they were safe.
And when this place went up for sale and they closed the video store I said we can’t lose that. It’s going to become something like that where you’re anonymous, where something illegal or dangerous is going to be done for our youth and I can’t live in a community where this happens.”
One of the many initiatives of Lupii Café is that of offering free community dinners at their facility, where the community can come together over a warm, rigorously vegan and Zero Waste meal, to be shared in the company of their neighbors.
“Our model has changed over the years. We started out with the idea that we were going to do a better coffee shop, where we didn’t have any waste, where the responsibility was on us so that there couldn’t be waste outside. And the other was how do we actually get people to sit down and actually start talking to each other?
So we started doing community dinners because I still and will always believe, that we are trying to fix the planet and trying to fix sustainability, but people don’t care about sustainability. They don’t care about what is going to happen in a hundred years time. They don’t care about what’s happening right now in Puerto Rico. They don’t care about all of those things and they especially don’t care when they feel like every day is a struggle for them to be able to survive, for them to be able to do anything. They care about Puerto Rico but nobody seems to be caring about them.
So if we want people to care about their neighbors and then ultimately Puerto Rico, and then ultimately a hundred years from now, they have to be cared about. So our community dinners started before we even opened the café. We’re about getting people to know each other because if they felt that they were known, if they felt that somebody was caring about them, then suddenly those things, and it might not be explicit and it definitely wouldn’t be immediate, but those associations would eventually be triggered.
“Then we saw in the first 8 months as a café just shocking behaviors. How convenience is understanding that we need things on the go, for the lowest price and how that allows us or entitles us to act as human beings. What that encourages. And so this goes back to what we were saying about every time we buy at the lowest price and what we encourage down the line. So every time we allow people to come in and go quickly, I mean if you appreciate something, if you value something, you’ll take the time.
People would walk in often and say ‘what’s the quickest thing?’. And we’d go like ‘Nothing. Nothing is quick you need to actually sit down’. And we had to do the coffee shop model in order to be able to understand that that is actually how we act in this convenience-oriented society. What’s going on with Mc Donald’s and Starbucks where you can order online and never talk to people? The devastation that it is wreaking on how we are as human beings we won’t feel for generations. But that where we go no human being is worth my time to actually interact with? It’s devastating. How do we expect to have any kind of impact on our environment when we actually don’t care about saying a decent word to another human being? It’s horrifying.
And so we said again so how do we change our model? And so now we do the weekly community dinners, where I’m doing this for the explicit reason of people saying hello to people in their neighborhood. To say this is who I am, this is who you are, so we start just being decent.
Then on Saturday’s we give the produce away for free. We are taking stuff that other people were going to put into the waste stream and we are showing the value of it but also showing people that we care about them and more than anything else, having people understanding what waste looks like. I know that the whole judgment of ‘if it’s free then there is no value associated with it’, but they’ll stand out here and they’ll basically queue the whole day so there is value.
Lupii are also invited to do educational programs for schools and at conferences in addition to catering services.
“We do catering where food that other people thought was not good, we showed there is actually huge value in. I insist that it has to be Zero Waste and it has to be vegan. So any time I cater I am insistent that there is no waste, and that there are no animal products because of all the waste inherent in that system. So if you’re committed to doing this, if you’re committed to doing Zero Waste we can either bring our own cutlery and stuff and take it back and clean it, or you can tell your participants to bring their own.”
Lupii also hosts workshops (such as luna pad workshops for women or re-usable diaper workshops) and clothing swaps for the benefit of their wider community.
“So those are the things that we do now. And that will change.”
“One of the most encouraging things is to hear from people who are already doing this and then you realize you are not talking a different language. And you are all talking about different things, but if you all talk together, then you start to have this coherent story. So I don’t know where we’ll fit because I don’t know what we’ll be doing in 6 months time. It depends on where those people need us, where we feel there are gaps and we can evolve.
But every week is a new thing, every week there is something we didn’t realize. When we do stuff we look at the impact that this is having on how people would take things for granted or even how we were impacting the world in a potentially negative way. And this is human nature. When you even just suggest, simply by existing, that maybe the things around you are not the way that is optimal for everybody else, people respond negatively, they rebel. They double down and they get angry, they do it more, and so some of the things that are happening around here are kind of responses to that. And so you go ok does that mean that I do less of this? Or do I be louder? I don’t know. I don’t have answers to those things. It never ends and there’s no answer.”
But that is Zero Waste. That is sustainability. Continuously striving for improvement. A continuous evaluation of how to do better and ultimately be more than just “sustainable”.
“Capable of being sustained”. That is the definition of the word “sustainable”. In an era where the very notion of sustainability is often come across with delusion, Zero Waste, with arguably the boldest of any objective, continues to grow as a movement precisely because of this ongoing pursuit for improvement, precisely because the goal of Zero Waste ultimately goes beyond the belief that the best we can aspire for is just being “tolerable” in our impact. Zero Waste is not about the “zero”. Zero Waste is about the journey more than the destination.
We hope that through our conversation with Lupii you have had the opportunity to see this, and to see how Zero Waste is ultimately, fundamentally about so much more than just waste.