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Waste Audit Results and Other Co-op Waste Reduction Updates

by Kirsten Moore, Cooperative Services Director

Last April we conducted a food waste and discarded materials audit across our five sites (our three stores, Production Kitchen and administrative office). Every Tuesday, the audit team went to a site and sorted samples of trash, recycling, and compost to report how accurately waste is discarded at the Co-op. 684 pounds later, we had sufficient data to consider where we can improve our ability to discard waste and keep it out of landfills when possible. 

Co-op Wide Overall Waste Audit Results: Satisfactory, B-

This was a baseline audit, meaning it was the first time we had audited our waste disposal. The goal: see where we are at, and then audit again in two years to see changes or improvements. Our baseline is not perfect, but not terrible. Overall, 81% of the waste generated by both employees and customers was discarded correctly. Our challenge over the next two years will be to find ways to improve the amount of waste that is discarded correctly. Let’s take a deeper look at the three waste streams: trash, recycling and compost. 

Trash: Insufficient, D+

The good news is that trash was the smallest waste stream we sampled, with only 131 pounds in the audit (which is 19% of the total audited weight). That means we are diverting much more waste to recycling and compost. Unfortunately, trash is the discard stream that will always be compromised. When auditing, we look for what was disposed of correctly and what was disposed of incorrectly. That means that to achieve a higher score, we should be trashing as few things that could be recycled or composted by our service providers as possible. We found lots of items in the trash that probably could have been recycled or composted with some extra effort. This is why the Co-op only recorded 69% as correctly discarded. 

There are some barriers to achieving a perfect trash score. For starters, items that can typically be recycled are not recyclable if they are dirty or have large remnants of food or liquid on them. In areas of the store where it is easy to wash out containers, such as our break areas for employees, we can make improvements. But in other areas, like the Commons, we do not have the space nor maintenance capacity to add plumbing for customers to rinse out containers on site. Therefore, we will likely always have at least some items that could be recycled in the trash. Compost on the other hand, is an area where everyone at the Co-op, employees and customers eating on site, could put in some more effort to learn what is and is not compostable, be mindful of signage available with directions, and then discard products in the compost instead of the trash when applicable. Some things that we noticed in the audit that would improve our trash stream include: providing greater clarity and training regarding washing recyclables when possible; choosing our reusable plates, cups, and utensils when eating on site; and adding Earth Stew composting buckets to all break areas to make composting easier for employees. We also noticed containers in the trash that were half to mostly full of food and beverages. We noticed this in both areas for employees only and areas for customers. Finishing the food we have at meals and breaks will lighten the total trash load and make it more possible to discard mostly clean and otherwise recyclable items in the recycling. 

Recycling: Satisfactory, B-

Recycling made up 195 pounds (28%) of the total audited weight, and of that, 82% of the recycling we audited was disposed of correctly. Recycling is always complicated because each waste management provider has different recycling rules, so how we might recycle at our homes may differ from how we recycle at area businesses like the Co-op. The biggest error we noticed in recycling was we like to call “aspirational recycling,” or “wishcycling.” This is when employees and customers put things into recycling that they believe should go into the single-sort recycling, but service providers simply do not accept. Aspirational recycling is not an issue limited to the Co-op; in fact, several City of Madison Common Council members recently toured their recycling provider’s single-sort material recovery facility and learned that wishcycling is an issue across the City of Madison. According to District 15 Alder Grant Foster, recycling contamination is “up from 5% a decade ago to over 10% today—and is mostly due to ‘wishcycling.’” Eco-lids, Greenware, compostable bags, plastic bags, bubble wrap, plastic film, and vinyl gloves were frequently found in recycling and do not belong there. Plastics that do not have recycling numbers on them also cannot be recycled. Furthermore, recyclable items that have food or liquids in them or stuck to them are not recyclable unless they can be washed (and we do not have the labor nor the facilities to wash disposable packages customers have purchased after they have been used). If you are not sure an item is recyclable at the Co-op, you may ask an employee, or, if you have to decide for yourself which stream is better, it’s strangely better to put it in the trash. That sounds counterintuitive, especially looking at our lower trash score, but when a recycling load is contaminated with non-recyclable or dirty items, waste service providers typically discard the whole load, which means it all ends up in the trash regardless of good effort. Sometimes, services charge fees for the contamination, and in fact, our Co-op is charged $22 each time a single sort recycling load is deemed too contaminated. Bottom line when it comes to whether or not something is recyclable: Alder Foster says, “When in doubt, leave it out.” 

An area of improvement for the Co-op includes providing clearer information for employees about what supplies and packaging are and are not recyclable. We can also improve our knowledge of which recyclables can be placed in single sort and which need to be separated for recycling (such as plastic bags) in back of house. Food for thought: our service provider accepts plastic bottles with their caps and rings on, but caps on glass bottles may not be recycled with the glass. Recycling can be easy, but it requires a very conscious effort, and attention to varying rules, to get it right. 

Compost: Excellent! A+

It’s great to report that when we compost at the Co-op, we typically get it right—both employees and customers! Compost was the largest part of our total audit sample at 358 pounds (52%). Of the compost we sorted: 99.5% was correct. 

The greatest area of improvement we see for compost is composting more! We found several things in the trash that could have gone to compost, which is why, as noted earlier, we think a good start would be adding Earth Stew buckets to all of our break rooms. People are more likely to compost when it’s more convenient to do so. An area of confusion for customers and employees is bread: it’s compostable! As long as there are no meat or dairy remnants on the bread, it can be composted by our service providers and it does not have to be a vegan bread to qualify. Another area for improvement is again the Eco-lids, greenware, compostable bags, and marine biodegradable straws: while some may be home compostable, such as our new produce bags and our compostable cookie bags, none of them are accepted by our compost service providers; they only accept compostable foods. So if these items need to be discarded at the Co-op, they must go to the trash. 

New Home Compostable Produce Bags Now Available

Did you hear about our new compostable produce bags? These bags are made in the United States by Crown Poly out of “Mater-bi,” which is an Italian bioplastic made up of starches, cellulose, vegetable oils and their combinations. The best thing about them is that if you compost at home, they are certified for home composting, unlike other bioplastics, which are only suitable for industrial compost facilities that reach very high temperatures. Crown Poly received home certification for these bags from Vincotte OK, which is based on European standards that include testing the chemical breakdown, physical disintegration, ecotoxicity (product that does not have negative impacts on plants), as well as heavy metal content. 

A couple of notes about these bags: while they are home compostable in a backyard compost setting, they are not recyclable. Also, the compost pickup services in Madison do not pick up any bioplastics, and so you can neither compost these bags at the Co-op nor if you are using one of these services for your home. Because the composting process requires oxygen, these bags are unlikely to break down in an oxygen-free landfill setting; when you put them in the trash, they will typically behave the same way as a traditional plastic bag. While these bags are a step up from traditional plastic bags, they are not perfect and still have the potential to function the same as a one-use only product if the bags cannot be composted at home. For those with concerns about this, or who cannot compost at home, you can use reusable bags when you shop the Co-op for produce and we have paper options in produce as well. Occasionally, due to limited availability of the compostable bags, we will still have the plastic bags available, which some municipalities such as Madison and Middleton and some private services do accept for recycling if bundled separately from single-sort recycling. Per state regulations, the Co-op is required to offer free bags for carrying produce, and paper is not always the most viable option for all produce available. Much gratitude to National Cooperative Grocers for finding a source for the Crown Poly bags for grocery co-ops nationwide!

FY2019 Shopping Bag Reuse: Reduced Disposable Bag Use By 40%

Thanks to all of you who choose to bring reusable bags when you shop the Co-op, you saved 504,693 paper bags from use last fiscal year (14,070 disposable bags were brought to the Co-op to reuse, and 490,623 reusable bags were used for groceries). This is compared to the 748,975 disposable bags we purchased for customers to use in FY19, which means that you reduced disposable bag use by just over 40% at the Co-op. According to UChicago Urban Labs, a 40% reduction in disposable bag use is about in line with the impact of the City of Chicago’s disposable bag tax, which charges customers 7¢ per bag used. This is also aligned with the reduction of disposable bags used in FY18. 

Together, your collective bag reuse not only prevented the use of more disposable bags, but also allowed for the Co-op to contribute $49,766 to the Double Dollars Fund. Instead of charging you a fee for taking a disposable bag, we offer an incentive: for every disposable bag brought in to reuse for groceries, the Co-op saves 5¢ for the fund, and for every reusable bag used for groceries, the Co-op saves 10¢ for the fund. We give both this contribution and your optional cash donations to the Double Dollars Fund to Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin to administer Double Dollars at both the Co-op and participating farmers’ markets so shoppers using Wisconsin FoodShare/QUEST can receive vouchers to shop more. Double Dollars are available at participating farmers’ markets now and will be back at the Co-op in October. Between reusing bags and cash donations at the registers, you helped bring a total of $70,097 to the fund this year, and $155,201 to the fund since we started in April 2017. Thank you for continuing to reuse bags when you shop, which is great for the environment and great for this cause! We appreciate your cash donations to the fund as well, many thanks indeed!

Thank You For Being Concerned About Waste

Every single person at our Co-op plays an important role in correctly disposing of waste and reducing our waste streams overall. We appreciate all of the feedback and kind words we have received regarding how we can support reducing the Co-op’s overall waste and your efforts to be part of that waste reduction. Your input matters. While we can’t make all the changes all at once, and some ideas and changes are outside of the Co-op’s full control to implement, together, we can take a step at a time and make a difference for the long run. Currently, we plan to continue to look at these waste audit numbers both for the Co-op as a whole and site by site to determine goals for the future. We also plan to redo an audit in FY2021 to see if we have made improvements. Thank you for continuing to make your own personal efforts and for your suggestions! We appreciate your knowledge, ideas, support and cooperation.