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What a Waste: Seven Generations Ahead, Whole Foods Team Up for Audit

Nonprofit helps grocery chain measure its waste stream, one lump of old oatmeal and fish head at a time.

Consider the waste at a grocery store like the in River Forest.

There are the things us customers see – disposable utensils, paper cups and food scraps in the cafe, discarded glass and plastic bottles, receipts and paper bags. 

And plenty of things we don't — Styrofoam packing peanuts. Lots of cardboard boxes. Unused soup.

It all adds up. But to how much, exactly? 

Finding that number was the goal of a recent waste audit at the store, conducted with help from the Oak Park-based environmental nonprofit .

For one 24-hour period back in January, SGA volunteers and Whole Foods employees set up special bins at the store, then plucked recyclable and compostable materials, liquids and other waste from them, "smiling the whole time while sorting through fish guts and old congealed oatmeal," said Whole Foods employee Lauren White. 

Here's what Whole Foods officials say the discovered about their trash*:

• 59 percent was compostable
• 24 percent would be sent to landfills
• 10 percent consisted of "co-mingled" recycling of most plastics
• 6 percent were liquids
• 1 percent "gimme 5" plastics program, which collects #5 plastics for recycling

Company officials are now making arrangements with a major hauler for regular compostable waste pickup, and the goal is to bring compost back to the store for resale or distribution to the municipalities of Oak Park and River Forest. 

"The biggest thing is letting people know that this is a process," Evans said, highlighting the store's other waste reduction efforts, from donating to local food pantries to walking bundles of packing peanuts over to the nearby UPS store. "There’s no such thing as a “completed” green mission. It is continual process of learning and growth. Composting was just the next step." 

The audit was conducted Jan. 19 as part of SGA's PlanItGreen intiative and aims to provide baseline waste measuring for local institutions like hospitals, universities and schools. The goal, organizers say, is to eventually link up those facilities with a waste hauler that can collect the compostable material on a dedicate route — and divert tons of trash from landfills in th process.

Shari Brown, a program associate with SGA, said achieving the massive waste reduction depends on many factors, like finances, fleet requirements and logistics, to name just a few.

"The other challenge, and this goes for any audit, is education, getting people in a store or school to store their waste correctly." she said. 

Challenging, but not impossible. 

* Those figures are from waste steams that were measured on Jan. 19. They don't include items like wine corks and certain meat scraps. Those materials, organizers say, may be counted in a future audit. 

Bess Celio May 02, 2012 at 01:36 PM
This is great! Keep up the good work. We are doing this at our elementary school and know the challenges, but it is so great to see it happening in local restaurants and grocery stores.. just reinforces the need and the possibility! Thanks.

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