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New Seasons Market has officially qualified as a "zero waste" company by recycling 92 percent of the waste that comes through its grocery stores.
How do they do it, and what's in that last 8 percent that winds up in a landfill? I went on a tour of the Hawthorne New Seasons store with a team of experts to find out.
New Seasons CEO Wendy Collie said one of the biggest steps toward zero waste is donating edible and non-edible food for reuse. That diverts more than 35 percent of the company's waste stream. New Seasons has donated 1 ton of edible food to Urban Gleaners, which delivers it to hungry people throughout the city. And the non-edible foods, including food scraps from grocery store kitchens, get turned into compost.
Another key factor, she said, is having employees who go the extra mile to separate trash from recyclables and compostables, who make sure all the recyclable stretchy plastic is separated from hard plastic, and that none of the recyclable material is contaminated. That way, the stuff everybody wants to recycle actually gets recycled.
"Our team will actually get into that trash and make sure that nothing is contaminated before we sent it forward into the cycle," said Collie, "because contamination actually is the biggest issue – getting the wrong product in the wrong place or having something that has some kind of contaminant on it. So it's a huge commitment to make sure that happens."
New Seasons stores have recycling and compost bins behind the registers, in the kitchen, and at the loading docks, and they have a combined waste bin for cafe customers that employees sort themselves. At some stores the employees actually drive recyclable material to a place that will recycle it.
The stores also have collection bins for customers to deposit the items that aren't recycled in Portland's curbside recycling program, including plastic lids, clamshell containers and plastic bags.
But there are still some pesky items that can't be recycled or composted, like receipt paper, potato chip bags, styrofoam, packaging with fused cardboard, plastic and metal materials like a Pringles can, and paper towels from the restrooms, which aren't eligible for composting.
"We tell people when in doubt throw it out," said Laura Kremser, a New Seasons Green Team member who focuses on environmental improvements at the Seven Corners store on SE Division. "If they're not sure what type of plastic it is, often styrofoam products will end up in the garbage, sometimes if it's a piece of cardboard or a piece of recyclable plastic with too much food debris on it to get it clean then they'll throw it out."
That's the kind of stuff that made up the 8 percent of material that went to landfills after leaving New Seasons stores, according to Eric Crum, director of Portland State University's Community Environmental Services. His office inventoried the waste stream at four New Seasons locations to determine how much waste is being recycled and how much is going to the dump.
"We literally hand-sorted everything or tracked it from reports," said Crum. "We took the landfill waste, compost and recycling, we hand sorted that and split it up in to material categories to find the makeup of it. It took us a month and a half and 330 staff hours, and we basically got a 24-hour snapshot of all the materials coming through the four representative stores."
The Center found that by diverting 92 percent of its waste from landfills, New Seasons is reducing energy consumption by the equivalent of 34,545 gallons of gasoline.
"I've been doing this for six years, and I've never seen such a large organization be so successful in a diversion program," said Crum. "It's really difficult to get those division rates up without the correct buy-in from everybody, and it seems like the staff here are really bought in."
A large component of the stores trash pile was restroom waste, he said, and that's a universal problem.
"A lot of people think paper towel waste is compostable, and it is, but there are systems and regulations that don't allow us to compost those paper towels in the region," he said. "It would take a lot of city and county buy-in to change that, but we need to talk about this issue and explain that we have companies striving for zero waste and they're getting hung up on paper towel waste."
Collie said the PSU assessment, which the company paid for, has helped give her and her staff ideas for what they can do next to chip away at the remaining 8 percent, including working with suppliers to eliminate disposable packaging. The stores have started to do that already by providing reusable plastic crates for produce suppliers delivering fresh fruit and veggies.
"We can go upstream and start to influence some of our distributors and manufactures to help us reduce waste, and that's pretty big," said Collie. "It's not just how we're managing it here at the store, but from the onset of where the waste starts."