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Our Impact on the Community

As we’ve been planning for a second store, we’ve also been evaluating our own answers to questions such as, “What impact does Willy Street Co-op have on its community?” Although it would be difficult to attach hard numbers, we have been discussing the tangible and intangible ways in which it does. In doing so, we also realized two things: 1) we do a lot of sustainable things, and 2) they’re so much a part of the way we do things, we don’t always keep up with telling our Owners all the things we’re doing.

A large portion of our daily practices in sustainability and community education are driven by the Co-op’s mission and monitored through the little-known Global Ends Policies, a long list of directions for what staff and management are expected to accomplish. From financial performance to safety and environmental responsibilities to name a few, the complete list of Global Ends Policies can be viewed on our website ( Our hope in presenting the following information is to create awareness about those things we are doing to reduce our carbon footprint, promote sustainable businesses and organizations, and support the lives of people we serve each day.

Carbon Happens
A carbon footprint measures the impact an individual or business has on the environment through the burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions generated on a typical day. This includes our heating, transportation and waste, which produce carbon dioxide and are measured in tons.

Grocery stores generally use enormous amounts of energy to heat or cool products (not to mention the people working and shopping in them). Freezers, coolers, ovens, hot-cases, cold cases and other equipment not only consume a lot of energy, but they typically produce a lot in the form of heat. Rarely does a season go by we don’t hear the store is too cold, especially in summer. This unfortunate dynamic is actually part of a plan to reduce power needs for the engines in the store’s many freezers and coolers that would be forced to work harder at staying cold if the temperature around them was kept too warm. Meeting a balance that satisfies everyone’s needs is our goal, however when extreme or sudden changes in outdoor temperature occur, it can take a while for the temperature in the store to adjust.

To offset our use of fossil fuels in the store and in our Production Kitchen, Willy Street Co-op has developed several approaches to meet our high-energy demands and to decrease wasted energy. When the current store building was acquired, designers of the space planned for lighting occupancy sensors in offices and non-retail areas to decrease wasted light energy and they installed high windows to harness day lighting wherever possible. Equipment and appliances bought for the store are Energy-Star certified, and high-efficiency refrigeration systems and a heat reclamation system were installed. Eventually a solar-collection system was installed on the Co-op’s roof to offset some of the energy needs, but the scheduled installation of a solar thermal system, which will be used to pre-heat water, is expected to significantly reduce the amount of carbon-based fuels used in daily operations at the store.

Our local energy provider, Madison Gas & Electric (MG &E) has also been working for decades to research alternative sources for clean energy and the Co-op is pleased to be a partner in their Green Wind Power program which works to expand the sustainable creation of power through the use of wind and wind turbines (windmills). MG&E is also exploring the introduction of electric vehicles in Madison and will provide another opportunity for us to cooperate by housing a charging site for this new hybrid vehicle. Two spaces in our parking lot will be accessible for electric vehicle-charging (but not reserved exclusively) where users can recharge their vehicles using the three-foot high “pump.”. We are pleased to see MG&E working on these initiatives and hope to see these exciting projects succeed and reduce the use of not-so-green or other traditional energy resources.

Reduce, reuse, recycle
Another commonality among retail grocery stores is our reliance on reams of paper products. To reduce our environmental impact while providing essential packaging materials, we choose post-consumer recycled paper for store supplies, including shopping bags whenever possible. And the colorful printing on those paper products became more earth-friendly when manufacturers began offering water-based inks on shopping bags and other foodservice items (cups, salad boxes, etc.).

Until we discover a revolutionary new plan to replace the cardboard box with a more sustainable product, we’ll continue to handle the hundreds of boxes received in the store each week by crushing them together to make large bales, which are then picked up by a local recycler. Some of our vendors have found ways to save money and reduce waste by requesting that their boxes be returned to them for reuse when it’s appropriate and wouldn’t conflict with safe food handling guidelines. Still, only a fraction of the boxes received on a delivery day are made available for shoppers to also reuse for their groceries or personal use.

Graduating from plastics
Next is our use of plastic. It’s taken some time, but new innovations in corn-based forks, spoons and knives have finally made it affordable to offer this compostable cutlery instead of unrecyclable plastic. If you’re not on-the-go and want to enjoy your prepared foods or salads in the store, the blue plastic plates and bowls and metal cutlery available in the Deli are a good environmental choice and can be left in the dish tub in our Commons area to be washed and sanitized in our Deli kitchen. Or if you’re grabbing a cup of coffee and plan to spend some time in the Commons area, let the Juice Bar staff know you’d rather use one of the available mugs or glasses at the Juice Bar.

When a national natural food chain issued a press release announcing they would no longer offer plastic bags in their store, Willy Street Co-op was contacted by local news writers who inquired about our position on the plastic bag issue. We were happy to report that throughout our 35-year history, we have purchased only paper bags. We do, however, offer the reuse of plastic bags, which are dropped off by other customers.

In 2005, as the national movement to promote bringing your own canvas or recycled bags to the grocery store started to accelerate, we kicked off the “Nickel & Dime Us” campaign to encourage more people to use re-useable bags by issuing a five-cent credit to shoppers for each paper or plastic bag they brought and used or ten cents for canvas or other textile bags. By 2009, nearly 295,000 individual credits were issued for cloth and paper/plastic bag reuse, totaling $28,388.

Though we’re seeing more and more shoppers using fabric or recycling plastic produce bags from home, our Produce department uses 100 percent post-consumer recycled content bags for customers who need them. Packaging for pre-made dips, grab-and-go food and the Deli case is made from at least 50 percent recycled post-consumer plastic bottles and we continue to seek out and request better options for these essential items from our bag vendors.

By the way, if you haven’t already seen the clear bins near the front doors of the store, you can now unload your stashes of plastic bags in one of these City of Madison receptacles. As if it wasn’t a sweet enough deal to begin with, the city plans to send their own drivers to pick-up the bags and deliver them to the recycling center.

Nuts and bolts and wires and pipes
When it comes time to call a plumber, electrician, architect, or other professional, our first choice is to partner with a local business or service provider. To support an economically vibrant community, we recognize the role this decision plays in retaining and creating local jobs and reducing fuel and transportation costs.

Righteous garbage
Sometimes things happen just when they’re supposed to, and so it was on that serendipitous day when our Kitchen Manager, Josh Perkins, inquired about who we might partner with to compost the hundreds of pounds of organic fruit and vegetable scraps generated in the Willy Street Co-op kitchens each week. A call was placed to the Christie Ralston, Executive Director for Groundworks at Troy Community Farm on Madison’s North Side, and they were thrilled to get the call as they were in the final stages of constructing a greenhouse to be used for teaching and sustaining the farm year-round.

A significant project to create nutrient-rich compost through a process called vermiculture will take up one portion of the greenhouse and essential to creating compost are vegetable and fruit scraps. Christie and Farm Manager Claire Strader were even more thrilled to learn that Willy Street Co-op will also be delivering the scraps to the farm each week.

Grounds for concern
Work to prevent run-off from our parking lot from flowing toward Madison’s lakes was in the forefront of our thinking when the Co-op’s rain garden on Jenifer Street was designed and installed. Absorbing rainwater that’s collected from the building’s roof, loading dock and parking lot, the main garden consists of a large gulley to temporarily hold all of that water, which is deposited there through drain pipes on each end. Native plantings in the gulley were selected for their beauty and ability to withstand the occasional flooding and act as a natural water filter.

During a downpour, or when melting occurs, salt, gas and oil drippings from cars parked in the parking lot flow toward an intentional dip in the center of the parking lot to allow water to stream toward another rain garden, referred to as the “snake garden.” To our knowledge, there are no actual snakes there, but through a series of s-curves dug into the landscape, the run-off is partially dammed, creating an opportunity for the plants to filter the water and inhibit those elements from ending up in the lakes.

Around the rain gardens and grounds of the Co-op, maintenance staff follows strategic protocols designed to eliminate or reduce waste or pollution. To compost trimmings or foliage from direct weeding, a “brown” yard composter was built on the Jenifer St. side of the building.

As it would be expected, there are no synthetic pesticides or herbicides used in maintaining the lawns on Co-op property, but taking a cue from our organic farmers, a vinegar and clove-based herbicide is used around the building’s exterior as needed during the growing season.

Inside the building, environmentally sound soaps and cleaning agents are used whenever possible, and cleaning and office supplies are bought in bulk to limit the amount of packaging and pollution from transportation. Led by Maintenance Coordinator Jim Jirous, the maintenance team of handy craftspeople also have a knack for finding ways to fix or renovate broken or discarded furniture and display fixtures into useful creations to meet our needs and keep more trash out of landfills. These brave souls are also shepherds of our robust recycling systems which collect paper, packing peanuts, light bulbs, toner cartridges and plastic.

More next month
Next month, this article continues outlining ways in which we participate in our community outside the Co-op walls.