Reduce, reuse, recycle. These are words that so many of us try incredibly hard to live by. When we have the good fortune to work for a place that also strives to make those words an integral part of its business ethic, it provides us—as individuals and employees—with the support and opportunity to push ourselves even harder to make choices that fall in line with this credo. Such is the case in my situation. When I took over as the Assistant Deli Manager here at the Willy Street Co-op East, one of the most irritating, difficult projects I undertook was to find a way to make our Deli containers more eco-friendly. At the outset I figured it would be a challenging task, but one that would have a relatively basic, easy solution—I just had to find it. Well, it has been challenging and there has really been no easy solution, up until this point. Now, because of some happy coincidences, things have started to move in the direction I was hoping to find.

PLA containers
Many of you know that we currently use deli containers made of PLA or polylactic acid. PLA is, as defined at http://reprap.org/wiki/PLA, a “bio-degradable polymer that can be produced from lactic acid, which can be fermented from crops such as maize.” This combination of factors make PLA containers seem like a far better option than plastic containers. However, there are other details that make the situation a bit more complicated, not the least of which is the fact that PLA containers are only compostable if they are sent to a commercial composting facility, which we do not have here in Madison, nor is there one in Middleton. Let me amend that; there are local commercial composting facilities set up to take yard waste and brush, but none that are set up to compost packaging. Most of us do not have the ability or the know-how to maintain a compost capable of handling the PLA packaging due to the temperature requirements needed to break down the material. It is true that you can dissolve the materials in hot water—which is why PLA cannot be used for hot foods or beverages—but then the question becomes: what do you do with the material once it has been dissolved? It shouldn’t be poured down the drain and, while it may be okay to pour it onto your lawn or garden (I couldn’t find any information saying not to do such a thing), I still wouldn’t suggest doing that.

This is not to say that PLA containers are all bad; they do have some really great things going for them. They are made from corn grown here in the U.S. and other renewable plants are being investigated as prospective sources for the lactic acid supply. If and when there are more commercial recycling facilities available and there is far better sorting of different types of plastics in order to prevent contamination during the recycling process (enough of the wrong type of plastic mixed in with a recycling batch can ruin the whole batch) then PLA will absolutely start to be a much more viable “eco” option. This becomes even more the case if the plants used for the basis of the lactic acid are less demanding of fertilizer than corn. Yet, for the present, it seems that using PLA is only creating more waste to go into the landfill, and that is also a problem because the material does not break down well (if at all?) once it is in the landfill.

Madison and Middleton accepting #1 and #2 plastics for recycling
So what is a girl to do when looking for ecologically friendly, non-leaking, compostable or recyclable deli containers? The answer, for now, is a return to plastic. Now, before you take away my membership to Sierra Club, WISPRIG, and all the other environmental defense groups I support, let me explain this decision. We are going to start using rPET plastic, that is recycled PET plastic, most of which comes from recycled bottles. The containers we are going to carry will be #1 plastic—meaning that they are 100% recyclable. But, you say, Madison doesn’t accept deli containers regardless of the number on the bottom! I know, how irritating is that? I was so bothered by that piece of information that I sent the Streets Division a very polite, but slightly exasperated email asking why they were making my job more difficult by refusing to accept perfectly recyclable materials. Much to my happy surprise I got a very rapid response stating that after January 1, 2012 the city of Madison would start accepting deli containers #1 and #2 for recycling. I literally shouted out of joy—seriously, ask my co-workers. I think I scared some of them.     

The pieces were falling into place. I checked the city of Middleton’s website and discovered that they too accept deli containers for recycling and then contacted our supplier to see if he could provide us with the right rPET containers for our purposes. He came through in a big way by finding us the containers we wanted and, on top of that, the containers are produced by a company located in Dane County. Not only are they local, the rPET containers they offer are made of up to 100% post-consumer waste. They cannot guarantee the percentage would always be that high as it is based on the availability of the necessary post-consumer waste that is viable for use in their products, but the standard is at least 20% and oftentimes higher than that.

Let us know what you think
So to make a long story short, the Delis at Willy Street Co-op are now using rPET plastic containers which, with the newly updated recycling program in the City of Madison, are now 100% recyclable. We will no longer be carrying the PLA containers, but as things change and are updated so frequently we will re-evaluate things on a regular basis to make sure that we are doing our part to keep the Deli as ecologically friendly as possible. We do realize that using plastic creates another series of daunting problems to deal with, but after all of the research we’ve done on this issue, we strongly feel that—for now—this is really the best route. If you have anything to add to the conversation, please contact us either through email (customer.comments@willystreet.coop), customer comment card, or just stop by the Deli. We are always happy to listen to any suggestions or information that you have to pass on to us.

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