zero waste

Talking Trash with Kathy and Gwen, Part 2

The topic of waste reduction is common fodder at the Co-op – after all, one of our Ends (the reasons we exist as a cooperative) is to promote environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices. It’s something we’re always working on and there’s always room for improvement. With this in mind, interested staff members at the Co-op began meeting monthly to discuss ways that our Co-op could improve our practices to move closer to a zero-waste operation. We realized during these gatherings that we have a lot of collective passion on the topic and many of us come from backgrounds that help inform the ideas we bring to these meetings.

Take Gwen Lyons, for example. You might know Gwen as a cashier at the Co-op, but you may not know that she holds a degree in Environmental Studies from UVM and her previous job was with the Central Vermont Waste District.  She’s a glorified, self-proclaimed Trash Nerd. And she’s got a lot to share with us about what happens (or doesn’t happen) to items when we dispose of them. We wanted to share some of this with our Co-op community so we asked Kathy Comstock, who you may also recognize as a cashier, to interview Gwen. We’ll be sharing the interview with you in two parts. If you missed part one, click here! Read on for part two:

 

Kathy:  So, what is Zero Waste?  A quick Wikipedia search tells me that Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills or incinerators. The process recommended is one similar to the way that resources are reused in nature.” And, so, it means that Zero Waste is especially important to consider now because we are running out of space and ways to handle our waste, correct?  You told me in an earlier conversation that our landfills here in Vermont are almost at full capacity.  And most of us, by now, have heard about China and other countries that are beginning to say “NO” to the US and not take any more of our recyclables.

 

Gwen:  Right.  Vermont only has one working landfill left in Coventry, Vermont – up near the Canadian border. Back when I was still working at CVSWMD, it was forecasted that the landfill only had the capacity for 20 years of waste remaining. So, what happens when the landfill is full? Not only is the permitting process for siting a landfill arduous and building one is very expensive, but any town in Vermont has the right to say “No” if they don’t want one. The big issue is that we (Vermont consumers) are happy to produce the waste, but don’t want to take responsibility for it when we are finished with something. Adding to the frustration is the fact that about 1/3 of what is being thrown away is organic material – food waste and yard debris, which will never break down in the anaerobic (or non-oxygenated) environment of a landfill.  And although it will eventually break down, in doing so it will release methane, a very toxic greenhouse gas. Companies who own and operate landfills will boast that they can harness the methane to use for electricity, but in most cases, the methane is burned off on site. If you have ever driven south on I-89 past the Middlesex exit at night, you will most likely see the flame on the southern side. What you are looking at is the, now closed, Moretown Landfill burning off its methane. (Note: They do also harness methane to convert into electricity, and I believe they sell that electricity to the grid).

To further build upon your thoughts on zero waste, it’s not just the idea of sending nothing to the landfill or reusing things again. To me, zero waste is about not creating waste in the first place. A huge component of that is not buying products which come in packaging that has to be disposed of, in any sense. This means being a more thoughtful consumer – buying in bulk, not putting veggies in plastic bags, bringing your own reusable containers to the store, only buying to-go coffee if you have your own mug, etc. Truly living a zero-waste lifestyle, or as close to zero waste as possible, is do-able, it just takes planning and commitment.

But, I digress. Back to food scraps in the landfill. With the state’s Universal Recycling Law, by 2020 it will be illegal to put food scraps in the trash in Vermont. Although I think it is awesome and I am in complete support of it, we are again in the situation of having a forward-thinking idea, and creating the legislation to put it into effect, but are not necessarily prepared with the infrastructure to do it properly. Composting food scraps is easy on a small at-home scale. But being able to accept, process and compost an entire state’s worth of food scraps is not.

 

Kathy:  But why is that so difficult?

 

Gwen:  The long-short of it is two-fold: 

The first challenge stems from the fact that start-up costs for creating a commercial composting facility aren’t cheap and there are complicated zoning regulations one needs to deal with, as well. Commercial composting facilities aren’t necessarily a money maker, especially compared to landfills. It’s a tough, dirty job and not everyone is interested in pursuing a career in compost. So, as a result, there are very few commercial composting operations in the state. While at the district I worked closely with Highfields Center for Compost in Hardwick, Vermont Compost Company in Montpelier and Grow Compost of Vermont in Moretown. The Chittenden Solid Waste District also runs a facility in Williston, which, from my understanding, is already taking twice the volume (of food scraps) the facility was designed to take in. And this is with only a small number of residents and restaurants participating in composting in that area. Obviously, we are going to need the infrastructure in place to accommodate those who can’t compost at home. One upside is that, while large-scale composting facilities can be expensive to build and operate, unlike in your household compost, they can compost oils, bones, meat, or dairy.  This makes diverting food scraps from the landfill that much easier for VT residents.

The second challenge of composting on a large commercial scale is that, just like recycling, the stream needs to be clean. This means no contamination, including plasticware, PLU stickers, straws, stray napkins, plastic wrappers, etc.  In regards to the position that I mentioned earlier as “Compost Monitor”, it was my job in a school with a new composting program to stand at the compost, recycling and trash bins at the end of lunch and help students sort what was left on their trays. When on field trips to Grow Compost of Vermont, one of the owners, Lisa, would always bring out her bucket of plasticware to show us what had been sifted out. And PLU stickers on apples, oranges, and bananas’? They are made out of plastic and will not break down. No one wants to find a PLU sticker in their garden, but it happens. Food scraps can be rejected if there is too much contamination, just like with contaminated recyclables.

As I mentioned before, maintaining a clean stream is critical for recycling.  Loads of recycling can be rejected if the buyer determines there is too much contamination. So, as frustrating, and sometimes time-consuming as it is, plastics need to be rinsed clean of all food debris, and yes, this includes peanut butter. Honestly, I fill a container with water and leave it in the sink for the day. A good swipe and rinse with a scrub brush and it is good to go in the blue bin. Another tricky one is pizza boxes. Yes, your hot tasty pizza comes in what looks like an easily recyclable box, but if there is oil soaked into the cardboard it has to go in the trash. Why? The paper recycling process takes water – and water and oil don’t mix.  A repeat offender is napkins, I see them in recycling bins all the time. They are not recyclable either because, as a napkin or tissue, the fibers in that material have already been broken down to their smallest size.  There is no next step for them – into the trash they go. Of course, if you have a brown unbleached napkin it can most likely be composted – even at home. But, if you are sending your food scraps somewhere, check with them first. Those are just some common examples. (I can keep going if you want!)  But one last thing, … just because it says “recyclable” on it, or has the iconic recycling symbol on it,  only means it CAN be recycled. It doesn’t mean that it IS recyclable where you live.

 

Kathy:   OK.  So, this all sounds really overwhelming, but I don’t want to believe this is an impossible thing to overcome.  I know we can all make some changes.  I know that the Co-op has started to discuss and has already incorporated a few changes already.  What kinds of things would you like to see happen at the Co-op?

 

Gwen: Our staff is working on creating new signage, which will be posted at the trash, recycling, and compost stations to help give clear guidance about what goes where. I know I mentioned it earlier, but it isn’t always easy, and although most of us have the best intentions, we could be accidentally putting something in the wrong place. And yes, after 5 years in the solid waste industry I have become a full-blown “trash nerd”. I’m sure people have seen me pulling items out of both the trash and recycling at the co-op, muttering to myself under my breath. Plain and simple, I have been rewired to care about trash.

And, there are definitely changes that we can all make to reduce waste when shopping at the Co-op. Some are easy, and others will take a little more planning and organizing.  For instance, bringing in your own shopping bags is something that many of us already do, but there are still plenty of us who can adopt that practice. Also, thinking twice before using a plastic produce bag.  Do your avocados or bananas really need to go into a plastic bag? Nope, they don’t. They naturally have their own packaging. Instead, bring your own produce bags … either reuse plastic bags from a previous purchase, buy reusable mesh produce bags or just put your produce items in the basket.  Bring your own containers to fill in the bulk section. Only buy tea or coffee if you have your own mug.  And, if you are choosing to eat at the co-op, choose a reusable bowl or plate instead of a to-go container. If you’re taking your food to-go, we have a new reusable take-out container, as well.

There are so many simple ways that we can change for the better, we just have to start retraining our minds to stop being okay with our current single-serve, convenience-based consumer practices, and take a moment to consider what re-using and recycling methods we can employ instead. The question I liked to pose to all the students I taught was, “When you throw something away in the trash, where is away?”

But what I really want to emphasize is the concept of zero waste.  Before routinely buying, tossing, or consuming, consider if there is a way to avoid creating the waste in the first place.  So much can be altered just by taking a moment to consider the options. No one is perfect, (not even me!).  I, too, am guilty of going for convenience in a pinch. But, by taking the time to put reusable bags back in the car, grabbing a coffee mug “just in case” or choosing a plastic plate at the Co-op salad bar, and reframing our mindset, great strides can and will be made in improving our growing waste problems. Countries all over the world have demonstrated that collectively they can reduce waste, so we know it can be done. We just have to make the conscious commitment to lessen our footprint.  And, with knowledge, I think we can.

 

Kathy:  I think so, too. Thanks, Gwen!

 

Talking Trash with Kathy and Gwen, Part 1

The topic of waste reduction is common fodder at the Co-op – after all, one of our Ends (the reasons we exist as a cooperative) is to promote environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices. It’s something we’re always working on and there’s always room for improvement. With this in mind, interested staff members at the Co-op began meeting monthly to discuss ways that our Co-op could improve our practices to move closer to a zero-waste operation. We realized during these gatherings that we have a lot of collective passion on the topic and many of us come from backgrounds that help inform the ideas we bring to these meetings.

Take Gwen Lyons, for example. You might know Gwen as a cashier at the Co-op, but you may not know that she holds a degree in Environmental Studies from UVM and her previous job was with the Central Vermont Waste District.  She’s a glorified, self-proclaimed Trash Nerd. And she’s got a lot to share with us about what happens (or doesn’t happen) to items when we dispose of them. We wanted to share some of this with our Co-op community so we asked Kathy Comstock, who you may also recognize as a cashier, to interview Gwen. We’ll be sharing the interview with you in two parts. 

 

 

Kathy:  Hi Gwen.  So, let’s start with why you and I are talking…  We have both been noticing the use of plastics and the confusion of how to properly deal with waste at the Coop.  As I have been getting to know you better, I have discovered that you served as the School Program Manager in Washington County.  Montpelier specifically right?  What exactly did you do?

 

Gwen:  Yes, I worked for Central Vermont Solid Waste District from 2009-2014, which is not to be confused with Chittenden Solid Waste or Casella. Despite our offices being located in Montpelier, the district covered 19 member towns in Washington, Orange and Caledonia counties. My involvement with the organization started when I applied for a “Compost Monitor” position. Although it was only part-time (and not having any idea what a compost monitor was), I was excited to get back into the environmental field after graduating from UVM with a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies. I was fortunate to move up in the organization and eventually gained the title of School Program Manager. Considering that I enjoyed working with kids, being outside, getting my hands dirty (no pun intended), this position was perfect for me.

 

Kathy:  Great!  Let’s talk about trash or “solid waste”.  It seems that it should be such a simple concept to understand, and yet I find myself confused at least once a day about how I should best “throw away” a particular package or food container.  For example, it seems that I should be able to recycle the Co-op’s to-go boxes when I am finished with my food.  But I have recently been told that first I need to wash it out so that it is clean of food debris, and NOW I have found out that it is actually coated in plastic (in order to be leak-proof), and that makes it a non-contender as a recyclable item!  What gives?

 

Gwen:  You’re right, it should be simple and yet, it’s more confusing than ever. But, there are many things that factor in when it comes to “what goes where’. It is a process which can be easy, but we (consumers) need to be more diligent about what we are choosing to do in terms of purchasing and disposing. 

 

Kathy:  So let’s go straight to the compostable vs. recyclable debate.  Tell me what the pros and cons are for each issue.

 

Gwen:  First, I love the concept of compostable food containers, but manufacturers put the cart before the horse. They created these products, which in theory are awesome, but in reality, are causing more waste because there isn’t necessarily a system in place to deal with them. More specifically, compostable containers (utensils, to-go boxes, even food scraps) can’t be “composted” in a household system because there is (usually) not an adequate enough aerobic decomposition opportunity once they are put in the compost pile. Meaning, home composting systems are too small, and don’t have enough microbes to generate the oxygen and heat necessary for those containers to break down. What you end up with is household compost with forks and Co-op salad boxes mixed within it. Secondly, there are not enough commercial composting operations which will accept compostable utensils and containers. Some of this has to do with the end product the facility is trying to supply to the public. If a compost-producing facility is invested in creating certified organic composting matter, then it cannot accept these forks and to-go boxes, for example, because they are not made out of organic materials.  So, although compostable plates, cups, utensils and to-go containers are a great idea, this idea falls flat, and just becomes more landfill waste, since we don’t have the right infrastructure to support the disposal of them.

 

Kathy:  …. And what about recyclables?

 

Gwen: Without being able to properly compost the compostables, recyclable materials seem to be the next best thing. Who doesn’t want to think that by putting their yogurt container in a recycling bin, they have helped to not only stop production of one more new container but that they have also taken one more container away from the landfill?  The problem with our current recycling system is that recyclables are not necessarily being disposed of properly. Back to the yogurt container, and any food container for that matter, … it needs to be rinsed out before being tossed in the blue bin. Not rising out containers or putting items in the bin that the recycling facility (MRF) cannot accept can, what we call in the business, “contaminate” a load of recycling. Every load of recycling inevitably has some contamination – but the buyer of the materials can easily “reject” a load of recyclables. And guess what happens to that load? It goes straight to the landfill. This issue has become more prevalent since the on-set of “single stream” recycling (which is the term used when all paper fibers, plastics, metals, and other containers are mixed together in just one bin.)  When Vermonters were sorting their recycling, the stream was much cleaner and more recyclables were actually going where they should. The idea behind “single-stream” recycling was that it would make participation easier for the everyday person. The give and take, though, is that waste haulers and workers at the MRF are seeing an increasingly “dirty” stream of recycling.

For Vermonters, it is important to understand what can and cannot go into the blue bin. If I am not mistaken, waste haulers, like Casella or Myers, provide customers with a list of what can and can’t be recycled. These days, the recycling facility in South Burlington does accept plastic numbers 1-7. But, they do not accept Styrofoam – even though it usually has a recycling symbol on it – which is confusing to people. In terms of its weight, it is not cost effective to pack up and ship Styrofoam, even compacted, to a facility that can recycle it. And, even if a transfer station did chose to collect and send any category of the recyclables out, would they have a large enough holding container to store the load as they collected an adequate amount in order to ship it?  Another factor has to do with the market.  If there is not a market (no one to buy) for a specific material, it won’t be collected for recycling, plain and simple.

Another issue is the fact that certain materials are being “down-cycled” rather than recycled. Glass, for example, is not being remade into new glass bottles. Any glass recycled, in a blue bin, in the state of Vermont is being crushed and used as aggregate for road construction. If you ever notice the road “sparking”, well, that’s glass. Unfortunately, some of the newly built roads that glass is being used for are in/on the landfill. So – although it is getting a new life, it’s not actually being recycled. I don’t know the exact reasoning behind this, my guess is that there isn’t a smelting plant close enough to our area.

 

Kathy:  Seriously?!  So I am driving on crushed glass?  Now if that isn’t ironic, I don’t know what is. 

But back to the question of separating solid waste.  First, tell me more about your work.  What was the scope of your job?  How did it come into being?

 

Gwen: Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District is a government non-profit, meaning it is tax-payer funded and governed by representatives from our 19 member towns (although I believe that the district has gained more towns recently). Solid waste falls under the Department of Environmental Conservation in Agency of Natural Resources in the state of Vermont. So we were beholden not only to our member towns but also by rules and regulations set forth by the state. I worked for the district at an exciting time for solid waste, as it was prior to the passing of the Universal Recycling Law. Although I wasn’t closely involved, I did learn a lot about the legislative process of how laws are developed and how important it was for the state to collaborate and get input from the solid waste districts.

My job consisted of helping maintain and manage the composting program in all 26 of our member town schools (K-12), developing and teaching students about composting, recycling, landfills and the concept of zero waste. Through hands-on activities in the classroom, full school-wide waste stream audits, and field trips to local commercial composting facilities, landfill and MRF (Materials Recycling Facility), students were able to gain an understanding of why it’s important to think before throwing something “away”. Although I gained the nick-name “Compost Lady” and periodically was asked if I “sorted trash every day”, I was able to see the impact of my work when I would visit schools and see the creation of their student-based “Green Teams”, or teachers incorporating recycling initiatives into their curriculum, and especially in the general reduction in what was being thrown away. It wasn’t glamorous, to say the least, but I loved it.

One of the highlights of my tenure at CVSWMD was helping create, what we called, the School Zero Waste Grant Program. This program allowed schools to apply for funding to help their school reduce waste. Many schools took advantage and purchased reusable dishware and utensils for their cafeterias. Obviously, this greatly reduced the amount of trash that was created daily and was an easy way for students to impact the waste stream at their schools. Other schools used grant funds to purchase water bottle filling stations (like the one at the Coop). This encouraged students to bring their own water bottles and re-fill them. Main Street Middle School in Montpelier was a leading participant in the school zero waste programming. One of the middle school “teams” went as far as incorporating composting, recycling and zero waste into the curriculum. With them, I led waste stream audits twice a year, helping them to start collecting odd items that could be recycled (outside the bin), as well as getting other zero waste initiatives off the ground. The MSMS Green Team also applied for grant money to purchase enough reusable water bottles, with their self-designed logo, to give to every student in the school. This way, everyone could take part in reducing waste. This is one of the many examples of work I was able to do with students in the grand effort to move towards total Zero Waste.

 

Kathy:  That sounds incredibly rewarding!

 

 

Stay tuned for Part Two to learn more about what it means to be “Zero Waste” and the challenges of living a Zero Waste Lifestyle…

Lunch To Go…And Back Again!

Hello fellow Co-Op Members,

 

For those of you who might not have had the chance to read the blog post I sent out a few weeks ago concerning compostable packaging in the Co-Op, I’ll introduce myself again; my name is Greg Prescott, Store Operations Manager.

In my last post, I wanted to connect with you to discuss the largest roadblock in switching over all our packaging to compostable— that we do not yet have access to high-heat composting facilities, which are required for proper decomposition of packaging. For this reason, we still rely on plastics, which can be recycled, but we are actively looking for better alternatives to meet our packaging needs.

In light of this commitment to finding more sustainable alternatives, we’re introducing the reusable take-home salad and hot bar container, which you may now find at the Co-Op: a BPA Free, NSF Certified, Health Code Compliant, microwavable and dishwasher safe reusable to-go container. I’m so pleased to be able to say, IT’S HERE! 

This is a huge deal for us.  A reusable container takes waste out of our landfills, which is our ultimate goal. All told, a reusable to-go container program can be difficult to execute because of important health codes. You may be familiar with what it’s like eating from a buffet, where you are required to grab a new plate each time you choose to fill up again. When I began my search for a reusable container, I remember thinking that this sort of “plate rule” seemed weird and wasteful, but it’s really designed to keep consumers safe from the transference of unsafe or just plain gross substances we would potentially be exposed to if say, the romaine tongs picked up a looming “foreign substance”. (insert villain music)

The health code states that all containers or plates for food need either be single use or washed and sanitized by the establishment between each and every use. This means, in practice, that I am unable to bring in my own container and fill it with delicious food unless the deli staff washes and sanitizes the container prior to use— a pretty inconvenient process for both staff and patron.

Therefore, we have invested in these new reusable to-go containers which will (hopefully) provide a streamlined alternative to our curent disposable packaging. Here’s how it works:

  1. Deli staff washes and sanitizes the containers
  2. The containers are placed out near the salad and hot bar
  3. A customer can grab one, fill it up with either salad or hot bar or both
  4. Go through the register, pay for the food and provide a $5 deposit for the container
  5. Rinse the container at home, your place of work or wherever you may find yourself
  6. Bring the container back to the Co-Op and give it to a cashier to receive your $5 deposit back
  7. AND REPEAT

This is the same system our customers have been using when buying glass bottle milk and, best of all, remains health code compliant. While this process may not work for everyone and does not address all of our hurdles in attempting to minimize waste on a broader scale, it does chip away at the issue.  Every small step brings us closer to where we’re going.

Thank you for helping to push our Co-Op forward and allowing me to serve in that process.

See you in the lunch line,

Greg Prescott

Store Operations Manager

The Trashy Truth About Compostables

Hello fellow Co-Op Members,

My name is Greg Prescott and I am the Store Operations Manager here at your Co-Op. I want to take some time to talk with you about an issue that has been gathering a lot of attention in our collective conscious— an issue that is finally turning the momentum of change. I would like to talk about plastics; most specifically plastic straws, compostable packaging and where our Co-Op is right now pertaining to this discussion.

As a member of the Co-Op community and the broader global community, I endeavor to find the best possible solutions for our planet. I have a one-year-old son who depends on this commitment so that he and all future generations can thrive and further the stewardship of our planet’s health. As a father and the operations manager of the Co-Op, I am balancing between my strong desire for our Co-Op to be a pioneer in establishing positive changes toward a healthier environment and what is logical with our current systems. I hope through addressing some specific customer concerns, I can convey the complexities which may make progress come more slowly than we all would like; and further, how exactly we are trying to do the right thing.

Two recent and pertinent comments that speak to our use of plastics are: “Please replace (y)our straws with compostable” and “I love that you are carrying fresh Faroe Island Salmon, but the plastic packaging seems excessive and bad for the ocean”. Addressing these specific examples may help to illustrate our thinking and what we are currently working through and towards.

Replacing our plastic straws with compostable straws should be easy. Unfortunately, our decision not to make the switch at this moment is because we do not have access to an adequate high-heat composting facility needed— the straws would go to a landfill in exactly the same way as our current plastic straws.

Compostable straws (along with many other types of compostable packaging) will only break down and compost in specialized high-heat composting facilities. Right now, the infrastructure of Vermont’s waste management system is unable to support mass quantities of compostable packaging, not enough high heat facilities exist. We finally have access to compostable packaging and single-use items (straws, cups, “Styrofoam” trays, cutlery) but we do not have the technology in place to take advantage of this amazing advancement. It is going to take time for our infrastructure to catch up to our needs as environmentally conscious consumers.

Currently, we are working with Casella’s Waste Systems. For years Casella’s has handled our trash and single stream recycling program. Recently Casella’s has begun to help with our composting needs. Every Wednesday Casella’s will pick up our compost and bring it locally to Foster Brothers where it is dropped off to decompose and become, well, compost. Foster Brothers is not a high-temperature composting facility, therefore products such as compostable straws will never reach the required temperature to properly break down. This is where we are currently— we are absolutely still searching for other options and hope to soon find a solution to our lack of in-state high-temp composting resources.

So, what can we do as consumers? Well, the best practice of all is to personally invest in a reusable straw. By doing so you are removing as many straws out of the collective waste stream as you have beverages that require straws.

What can the Co-Op do?

We are working with our supplier to source paper straws. Paper straws are biodegradable and break down quickly, eliminating the long-term/forever effects of plastics. However, paper straws can break down quickly in beverages. This means paper straws are not everybody’s favorite. We have been product testing straws and while they hold up well enough in liquids such as iced coffee, they don’t last very long in our smoothies. Therefore, when we are prepared to offer paper straws, we will still have plastic straws available upon request. Additionally, there are some customers who may absolutely need a plastic straw, so it becomes imperative to keep them available. (please read this article from NPR, I found it to be very eye-opening).

Moving on to the second pertinent comment regarding our seafood packaging: “I love that you carry fresh Faroe Island Salmon, but the plastic packaging seems excessive and bad for the ocean”. With our expansion, we have recently been able to carry fresh seafood. We were looking for an alternative to the traditional Styrofoam trays and plastic wrap for seafood packaging, which are a threat to our planetary health, and discovered a particular plastic container, that while not our ideal or long-term answer, is recyclable. As of now, anyone with access to single-stream recycling can recycle these containers. I say “as of now” because of the developing issue with China refusing to accept our recycling waste (you can find many articles about this, including this one from NPR). Although this isn’t the best option overall for packaging, it is the best option we currently have.

In closing, I want to stress that although in the immediate future, we are unable to provide an all-encompassing packaging switch, we are actively engaged with our most heartfelt desire to take responsible action for the sake of our environment through overcoming the aforementioned logistical roadblocks. We are working hard with our suppliers and our partners to find better, truly sustainable options and will do our best to embrace them and construct ways that our Co-Op can integrate them into the community. Until then, please keep pushing us to do better. Please know that we want to do better. And please bless us with your patience as we try to solve these problems in the most responsible and thoughtful way. Thank you very much for allowing me your time.

Yours in service,
Greg Prescott
Store Operations Manager

On Plastic Bags and Nude Food

“There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic.”   Sian Sutherland

In the 1967 movie,  “The Graduate”, there is an often quoted line: “There’s a great future in plastics”.  Sadly, any plastic referenced during that conversation is likely still around. Plastic is just about indestructible and does have a great future in terms of longevity. Worldwide concern about the ubiquitous use of plastic is growing, however, and some locales have developed unique approaches to address the problem. A few factoids:

  • Scientists estimate that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced worldwide since the 1950s when mass production began. Of that, roughly 6.3 billion metric tons have been thrown away, and only 9 percent of discarded plastic has been recycled.
  • A Dutch supermarket chain introduced what it billed as the world’s first plastic-free aisle in a store in Amsterdam. There, shoppers found groceries, snacks, and other items packaged in compostable materials or in glass, metal or cardboard.
  • The Church of England issued a Lenten challenge this year, asking people to avoid purchasing plastic products and packaging for a six week period as a way to raise consciousness about plastic shopping habits.
  • A number of countries have either eliminated plastic bags in grocery stores or charge customers for them. Follow-up suggests a significant reduction of plastic bags in the waste stream where these measures have been implemented.

A particularly good overview of the omnipresent plastic bag comes from Joseph Curtin, a member of the Irish government’s Climate Change Advisory Council, in the 3.4.18 edition of the New York Times. No matter how you feel about this, there is no question that the prevalence and permanence of plastic bags in our waste stream is a problem, and we can all do our small part to mitigate it. Plastic bags are not “free”. Stores pay for them and pass the cost on to customers. There are environmental and financial costs associated with the energy and resources required to produce, recycle, and/or remove them from the refuse stream.

In recent readings, I encountered the term “nude food”, i.e. food that is not packaged in any way. It is selected at the market, placed in a container you have brought with you, and remains unclothed until you get it home.  We have developed many automatic, unconscious food shopping habits that require some reflection. When buying fresh produce that is pre-packaged, or that we place in a plastic bag, we are actually purchasing two items. One we will use, the other will be thrown away. This makes little sense, as noted in a recent New York Times piece that quotes Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, an advocacy group that has pushed the concept of eliminating plastic bags. Ms. Sutherland notes, “There is absolutely no logic in wrapping something as fleeting as food in something as indestructible as plastic.”

If you want to do your part locally, there are many alternatives to using immortal plastic bags.  Google “alternatives to plastic bags” to become educated about an array of reusable products. Become mindful of bringing home some “nude food”. Some possibilities:

  • Bee’s Wrap, a reusable alternative to plastic wrap, is made in Bristol, Vermont and you’ll have fun discovering ways to use it.
  • Reusable silicone bags that have the see-through, flexible, and hygienic appeal of plastic
  • Heavy duty canvas or cotton grocery bags that can hold 40+ pounds
  • Linen bread bags touted to keep bread fresher than plastic
  • Muslin produce bags said to keep produce fresher than plastic
  • Nylon mesh produce bags that allow cashiers to access UPC stickers
  • Incredibly appealing cotton and polyester sandwich bags that would make brown bagging a much more esthetic experience
  • Bring a reusable tote bag with you when you shop and stash pre-used paper and plastic bags inside for produce or bulk products
  • Consider buying bread packaged in a recyclable paper bag
  • If you buy bulk coffee, those sturdy, lined brown bags that are provided can be reused, easily 10 to 15 times. Or just use an ordinary paper bag. It is better to store coffee in a glass and/or airtight container anyway, so you only need to get the coffee home and doesn’t using a new bag each time seems excessive?
  • If you have purchased something in one of those clear plastic “clamshell” containers, use it again and again for produce or bulk items.
  • To transport your “nude food” from store to home, enjoy the retro charm of shopping with a real basket from your home collection, or grab a small cardboard box from the array available at the front of the store. The latter is also great if you’ve forgotten your tote bag.

It’s our store, so let’s continue the conversation … it is an important one!

Louise Vojitisek is a Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board Member

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