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New Seasons navigates new composting rules

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oliver Bates (left), promotions manager for the Seven Corners New Seasons store, has found a way to make re-usable sample cups and spoons work. Teak Wall, New Seasons sustainability program manager, is working to take the initiative company-wide. 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.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - All 14 Oregon New Seasons stores will phase in the metal ramekins and spoons this spring, spurred by new standards for composting. 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 not 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 Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - With reusable sample ware, customers pull fewer drive-bys, meaning grabbing a sample to go. They now stop to eat, chat, and toss the container in the bus tub -- cleverly  disguised in a handsome wooden box. 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.”


METRO AXES THE WAX

The new “food-only” standard for commercial organics — which Metro notified businesses of last March — follows another big change that took effect in November.

Metro Central Transfer Station quit accepting waxed cardboard produce boxes from businesses, which is a major deal to grocery stores that bring in produce by the truckload daily.

“For us, that was really big deal,” says Teak Wall, manager of sustainability programs for the chain. “Seventy to 80 percent volume of our compost was wax boxes.”

New Seasons and its consultant began researching alternatives to sending it all to the landfill. That led to two new initiatives, which they’re trying to persuade other businesses to join as well.

One effort is to send their corrugated waxed cardboard to California-based CleanFlame, a company that makes an ultra-clean-burning recycled fire log.

The boxes are wax-coated to protect it from ice, but that makes it a contaminant in the recycling process.

New Seasons struck the deal with CleanFlame but didn’t have enough space to store the boxes awaiting pickup. So they worked to get other local grocers on board and share a small space they’re renting at Metro Central Transfer Station.

Green Zebra stores are part of the deal; Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and Whole Foods are considering their next steps.

“I do think all the grocers are interested and want to participate; it’s just a matter of time before they do,” Metro Central Transfer Station operations manager Bruce Philbrick says. “They want to continue to have a high rate of waste diversion.”

Since November, CleanFlame has collected 89 tons of cardboard from Portland New Seasons stores. Two out of three of the truckfuls were back-hauls, meaning that they’re filling otherwise empty trucks on their return trip to California.

According to CleanFlame, the waxed cardboard otherwise would take about 50 years to break down in a landfill.

And the company estimates they save about 200,000 trees each year from being harvested for firewood.

“Ultimately, we’ll see a lot of creative solutions come out of this,” Philbrick says. “There’s a great opportunity for innovation here.”

On top of that, Wall says New Seasons is saving $100,000 each year in reduced hauling costs for their waxed cardboard with the new initiative.

The other major effort New Seasons took on to address the box dilemma is to simply use less cardboard.

New Seasons already had been using washable, reusable plastic crates for produce that Wall estimates kept about 33,000 wax boxes out of the landfill each year. This year, they’ve increased their use of the plastic crates.

Switching to plastic sounds simple, but there are a lot of logistical hurdles to overcome on the distribution side before reusable containers can entirely replace cardboard.

“It’s actually a business problem, not a recycling problem,” Wall says. “We could ask our growers to put our produce into reusable plastic containers, but the larger growers are not going to change their entire practice for a tiny retailer. What it takes is all the retailers — or at least enough — to say we want this. We’re trying to figure out the tipping point.”

— Jennifer Anderson

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