by Molly Farrell
The World's largest retailer of natural and organic foods - Whole Foods, Inc. - wants to reduce its waste to zero. The company is trying to reach this goal by composting its unusable food, floral and food-soiled paper residuals.
It hasn't been easy, with having to find the right haulers, composting facilities, and enough space in the stories to pack and store compostables. Company officials realize, however, that composting could have a tremendous impact on reducing the company's waste stream, and improving its bottom line.
Whole Foods started with a small natural foods store in Austin, Texas in 1980 employing 19 people. The company now has 162 stores in the U.S., Canada and the UK and more than 27,000 employees.
Company officials estimate that each Whole Foods store generates an average of 13 tons of organic residuals and trash a week. Of this, compostable materials (including food culls and trims, out-of-date food, floral trimmings, wet and waxed cardboard, wet paper, and used paper plates and cups) add up to 60%.
Currently, about one-third of Whole Foods stores are composting. These stores are located on the West Coast and in the Southwest and North Atlantic regions. Each region and each store operates differently.
How It's Done in the West
Tom Wright is the sustainable business practices manager for Whole Foods stores west of the Mississippi. When he turned his focus to composting in 2001, only two stores were diverting their organic materials, and those went to hog farmers.
Wright contacted Community Recycling/Resource Recovery in Sun Valley, California, which had been processing organics for a number of supermarket chains at its industrial-scale composting facility south of Bakersfield. Over the past 10 years, Community Recycling has collected and composted 1.1 million tons of food residuals from the 1290 stores it serves.
"Community Recycling let me study the composting systems used at Von's and Ralph's grocery stores because it wanted our business," notes Wright. They started composting organics from Whole Foods southern California stores and its regional bakery and commissary in June 2003 using the same system.
At the southern California stores, food banks get the first crack at produce that can't be sold to the public. Produce that doesn't go to the food banks is culled for composting. Employees put these culls directly into waxed cardboard boxes, which are stacked in the store's staging area and then put on pallets. Whole Foods trucks delivering produce backhaul the pallets of compostables to the Whole Foods distribution center in Vernon, California where they are placed in a compactor. Once a day, Community Recycling collects the full compactor from the distribution center, drops off a clean one, and brings the full compactor to its composting facility in Lamonte, 100 miles away.
Training Employees & Marketing Compost
Wright devised a color-coded system to train employees to put materials in the proper containers: green for compost, red for glass, metal and rigid plastic containers, blue for mixed paper and yellow for plastics. Signs are in Spanish and English. Digital photos are taken of the trash and compostables containers and loads that are dumped at the compost facility, so employees can get immediate feedback on trash that is getting mixed in with compostables. "We take digital photos and put the best practice photos on www.sustainablebizness.com," he says. "The worst practice photos are sent only to the store."
Community Recycling conducted an audit during the summer of 2004 of 18 Whole Foods stores in southern California. "Thirteen are doing very well and five aren't, compared with other grocery stores with similar sales," says Wright.
Composting has spread to Whole Foods stores in Washington, northern California, Colorado, Texas, Oregon and British Columbia. Organics from 58 stores are being composted at seven different composting facilities in those regions.
In May 2004, Whole Foods began selling bagged compost in its southern California stores under the Green Mission label. An eight-quart bag sells for $1.99. "We're selling a lot of compost there," says Wright. "In fact, we're surprised by how much we're selling." In February 2005, the compost went on sale in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana and northern California stores for $4.99.
Challenges to Program Expansion
Wright would like to see more Whole Foods stores composting, but there are obstacles. "There needs to be more industrial scale composters," he says. "There really is a lack of market dynamics. Each market has one or two composters at the most. You've got to do business with them and they set the price. there are still some states where we can't find any such facilities, like Nevada. It's crazy because that area really needs compost. Las Vegas has to bring in topsoil on trucks from California."