Portland Tribune: New Seasons navigates new composting rules
Author: Jennifer Anderson
Posted: February 5, 2015

Read the full, original story in the Portland Tribune.

Shoppers at New Seasons have come to appreciate sampling items like wheat berry kale salad and marionberry-goat cheese spread as part of their enlightening, sustainability-minded grocery store experience.

There’s been just one problem: All of the disposable sampling vessels add up.

The Seven Corners New Seasons on Southeast Division Street has come up with a new way to offer samples, by ditching their paper and plastic cups and bamboo spoons for reusable metal ramekins and spoons purchased from a local restaurant supply company.

Customers linger a little longer at the sample counter and chat about the food, then toss the dirty dishware in a bus tub so it can be sterilized and reused several times per day.

“We’re getting a lot of compliments,” says Oliver Bates, promotions manager for the Seven Corners store, which hands out about 1,500 samples each day. “They’re happy to see we’re making an effort.”

In four months of the pilot program here and the Fishers Landing store in Vancouver, Wash., the stores saved 96,000 disposable cups and 62,500 spoons that normally get tossed into the compost bin.

All 14 New Seasons stores in Oregon have begun to roll out the reusable sample ware at their sample counters and expect to be fully converted by late spring.

The model may be an inspiration for Portland-area businesses facing a new standard for composting.

Starting March 1, things will change for all businesses that send their organics to Metro Central transfer station.

That station will no longer accept paper cups, paper towels, compostable serveware or pizza boxes in their “commercial organics” stream, as it’s called.

That’s because Metro’s hauler, Recology, has a contract with JC-Biomethane, a 5-acre biogas facility in Junction City. JC-Biomethane bills itself as the first biogas plant in the Pacific Northwest to produce energy from the anaerobic digestion of post-consumer commercial food waste, like fruit and vegetables, spent grains and recycled cooking oils.

“They take the food scraps and run it through a bioseparator, chop up the material and liquefy it into a slurry,” explains Bruce Philbrick, operations manager of the Metro Central Transfer Station.

“Anything not a food item is screened out and removed, becomes material sent off to the landfill,” he adds. “The slurry moves to a big reactor vessel, is processed in an oxygen-starved environment, degrades and gives off methane, which is captured and combusted. It’s used to spin the turbines to generate electricity. It’s very cutting-edge technology.”

Shortly after the contract began in July 2013, Philbrick says, JC-Biomethane raised concerns about the nonfood items in the stream that were acceptable at the time but now are being banned.

Yet Philbrick says this regulation is about singling out compostable items: “It’s about making sure our processors are successful and have the cleanest stream possible and making sure they can stick around and be a long-term option for us,” he says. “Without them, this stuff would be back in the trashcan and headed to a landfill. That’s something I just don’t think we can accept.”

A new mindset

Since when did composting get so complicated?

New Seasons and many other eco-conscious businesses started using composting sample ware six or seven years ago.

After use, they tossed it in with the market’s food waste and hauled away to be composted.

But Teak Wall, New Seasons sustainability program manager, says there was a lot to be learned in the process.

“We’re used to a mixed recycling program, so that’s how we started our compost program,” she says. “Everything will go together.”

Now, she says, “all of these so-called compostables don’t have any kinds of standardization or regularities around how they’re made or labeled. They don’t necessarily work in the same way. When they find their way into a compost facility — which all work differently — they don’t work together. There’s just this very bad soup.”

For many, the re-education process begins now.

“We’ve trained our customers really well to care about this stuff,” Wall says. “They all believed this was the right thing. But it wasn’t. Now we have to untrain them and retrain them.”

Misleading moniker?

New Seasons is one of many companies in Portland that have been certified as a “zero-waste” business, with a landfill diversion rate of 92 percent.

That meets the 90-percent threshold qualifying as “zero-waste,” according to an audit conducted by Portland State University’s Community Environmental Services program.

The nonprofit consulting firm uses criteria set by the Portland-based nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance.

New Seasons proudly displays its “zero-waste” status as part of its sustainability mission.

But some find that misleading.

William Daniels, a Gresham cabbie and longtime shopper at several New Seasons locations, says he was disturbed to inquire about the “zero-waste” certification and find out they actually send 8 percent of their waste to the landfill.

“This is not OK by me,” he says. “I’ve had multiple conversations with them about how eight does not equal zero.”

Wall says the company is redoing its audit this spring and will be interested in the impact of its compost program changes.

If the 92-percent diversion rate drops below the zero-waste threshold, she says, so be it.

“We have sustainability goals and data tracking; we really want to be transparent,” Wall says, noting her conversations with Williams. “I hope that will put him at ease.”

All too often, for businesses and consumers, “it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” Wall says. “You think you’ve diverted it, but did it really get recycled? We’re really trying to make sure we’re providing actual results.”