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The Food Waste and Discarded Materials Audit


by Liz Hawley, Education and Outreach Coordinator

How much food waste does Willy Street Co-op produce? What does the Co-op do to keep food waste and discarded materials from the landfill? These are questions we frequently hear from our Owners and staff alike, and generally speaking, we do our very best to divert as much as we can from the landfill. Before food makes it into the waste stream, we give it as many chances as we can to feed someone—whether it’s produce that’s ripe and ready but maybe a little blemished that we sell at a deep discount, or prepared foods given away to our staff in the employee free box, or a donation we send to Second Harvest Foodbank. But there are bound to be leftovers that don’t make it into someone’s home. And what about the scraps from food and beverage production? Where does this waste go? Well, we compost what we can, recycle what we are able, and the rest goes to the landfill. Okay, great, but what if it all gets mixed up? What if unrinsed smoothie cups make it into the recycling? What about the food waste that is intentionally or unintentionally thrown away? We hear anecdotal stories about these types of mix-ups happening, but we have no hard evidence of how much and how often it happens. 

Waste Streams and Sustainability

Willy Street Co-op’s mission is to operate an environmentally sustainable grocery business, and one way we can improve upon our sustainability efforts is to make sure our waste follows the proper stream, thereby decreasing the contamination rate of recycling and compost and reducing the amount that winds up in the landfill. Did you know that Waste Management, our waste removal service, dictates that if a very small percentage of a load of recyclables is contaminated by unrinsed containers or un-recyclable materials, they will throw the whole load into the landfill? Last year they communicated with us about the problems of contaminated loads of recycling, stating, “The recycling industry is experiencing high levels of contamination (such as trash in the recycling) at a time when the requirements for quality (clean recycling) are increasing due to new policies implemented by end markets for recyclable materials. Earlier [in 2018], China began to limit the quality and quantity of material it accepts for recycling, impacting the recycling industry world-wide. As a result, our focus on quality is higher than ever, as we work to ensure the long-term sustainability of our recycling programs. When non-recyclable items (contamination) end up in your recycling, they have the potential to turn the entire load into trash, resulting in contamination and additional processing and disposal costs.”

How in the world would we find out if our waste is going into the proper stream? Enter the Food Waste and Discarded Materials Audit. The what?! That’s right—this month, we’re planning to audit what is thrown into three of our waste streams, landfill, recycling and compost. The goals of this project are to determine how much is being thrown into the inappropriate discard streams, to find the contamination rates of each, and areas we can make improvements. Waste audits are nothing new, and we have taken guidance from National Cooperative Grocers and the UW Office of Sustainability to craft our audit plans. 

What’s the plan?

In order to establish baseline data for this project, we have to literally dig in. Yep, that’s right, we’re going to comb through our waste. Don’t worry—we’ll have all the appropriate protective gear to keep us safe! First, we’ll start by setting aside a sample of trash bags, recycling and compost produced that day. Then we’ll weigh each bag, open them up, and sort them out. If we find recyclables or compost in the trash, we’ll set it aside, and after each bag is sorted, we will weigh the items considered “contaminants.” This will give us percentages of how much was discarded correctly and incorrectly. We’ll also be able to record if there are certain items that are repeatedly discarded incorrectly. We plan to conduct an audit at each of our five locations—three retails, the production kitchen, and the business office.

Where Does our Waste Go?

At Willy Street Co-op, we determined we have about eight different waste streams, from viable food donations to landfill to compost to e-waste, and even more in between. For the purposes of the audit and where we feel we will be able to affect the most change, depending on what the results show, we will focus on landfill, recycling and compost. The landfill stream includes biodegradable packaging and other items that do not belong in any other discard streams. Recycling includes baled cardboard, plastic pallet wrap, Grade C plastic, scrap metal and single stream recycling. For the purpose of our audit, we will analyze the single stream recycling, and we plan to document the weights of the cardboard bales and plastic wrap we send to Recycle America. Compost includes organic recyclable material that we send to Sanimax, and compost also includes the food scraps we send to Earth Stew.

Where Do We Go From Here and What Can You Do to Help?

Although we don’t have any official results to report yet, it is safe to say that all of us at the Co-op, employees, Owners, and customers can work together to divert as much waste from the landfill as possible, and there are some small steps we can all take to help ensure our recycling and compost streams remain out of the landfill. We know that food is not recyclable, and food containers (recyclable plastics labeled 1-5) must be rinsed to remove food or drink before they are tossed into the recycling bin. Plastic bottles and glass jars should be recycled with the lids on the containers. 

Biodegradable plastic containers and straws (PLA) are not recyclable, and there is currently no industrial composting facility in our area that accepts them; for now these should be thrown into the trash. Our recycling processor is not able to take plastic bags. All single stream recyclables should be placed in the recycling sans plastic bag; this also includes plastic shopping bags. These bags clog the sorting machinery and put a halt to operations at the processor. Hoping and wishing that something is recyclable does not make it so, and “wish-cycling”—placing questionable material in the recycling bin with the hope that it can be recycled—can lead to the whole load being sent to the landfill instead of being recycled. The UW Office of Sustainability has a motto they use that’s easy to remember when deciding whether to put something in the trash or in recycling: “When in doubt, throw it out.” 

As noted above, food is not recyclable, and the Earth Stew compost buckets in the Commons areas of our stores are there to collect the following food scraps: coffee and tea grounds and filters, fruits, grains, eggshells, breads and vegetables. Earth Stew takes these food scraps and turns it into vermicompost at a worm farm. It is important to note that Earth Stew cannot accept bones, meat or fish, oils or grease, staples from tea bags, fruit/vegetable stickers, dairy products, diapers, compostable plates, cups or silverware, and take-out containers or clam shells. While we cannot compost meat and seafood byproducts or oils left by customers in the commons, we are able to recycle these items produced in back-of-house production through Sanimax, our commercial renderinging service.

Please don’t throw sharps, a form of biomedical waste which includes any device or object used to puncture or lacerate the skin, in the trash! We have special containers in the public restrooms at each of our stores for the proper and safe disposal of these items.

Once we complete our audits, we’re hoping the results will lead to more definitive action steps, and our intent is that developing and conducting a discarded materials audit will help us assess both our abilities and our commitment to limiting and further reducing the food waste and discarded materials our facilities produce. This would provide us with an efficient and prudent means to then recommend further actions and practices to adopt in our standard operating procedures across all of our sites. We hope to establish goals to improve and reduce food and material waste and establish a baseline for developing methods of meeting those goals. Ideally, this audit will help us improve our waste management practices across our entire organization.