How do we achieve zero food waste?

There’s a Chinese saying, 治標不治本 ; simply treating the symptoms to a problem does not solve the root cause. And right now, businesses are stuck addressing food waste symptoms.

Seattle is no stranger to environmentally sustainable policies. The city enacted a plastic bag ban in 2012. And in 2018, Seattle was the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws and utensils in food service businesses. These policies are steps forward to a cleaner, healthier environment. But how effective are they in practice? And how equitable is the burden to comply?

ECOSS partners with Seattle Public Utilities to conduct outreach with small, minority-owned food service businesses about recycling and composting. Over the course of several visits, ECOSS works with each business in their native language to understand Seattle’s recycling and composting policies, implement operations that meet the city’s regulations and adapt to new initiatives.

Signage in multiple languages guide customers in sorting recyclables, compostables and durables away from the waste bin.

By visiting businesses repeatedly, ECOSS builds relationships with the owners. These relationships in turn build trust as owners become familiar with ECOSS staff. Businesses become more eager to work with ECOSS and change behavior.

Repeat visits also enable business owners to discuss the challenges they face with ECOSS. Large businesses more often have the capacity to anticipate and adapt to changing policies and trends. But small businesses face numerous barriers to advancing recycling and composting capacity. Crucially, food service businesses are constrained by distributors’ supplies. Not all businesses are located near a distributor that supply compostable utensils or reusable straws. The compostable options can be two to three times more expensive than their plastic counterparts even when the distributor does supply. And yes, the city can do little to stop distributors from carrying plastic straws and utensils. Ultimately, small businesses feel like they are simply being punished for their good environmental deeds.

ECOSS promotes waste reduction by providing compostable utensils for multicultural events. Photo Credit: Sam Le.

These barriers create a gap between understanding zero food waste versus implementing and operating the processes necessary to realize zero food waste. Since 2014, ECOSS has helped businesses establish and increase their recycling and composting capacity. Businesses fully understand the importance of zero food waste and how to comply with regulations, but there’s a limit to their recycling and composting capacity. In addition to the above challenges, recycling and composting pickup is not continuous and businesses only have so much space to store their waste. ECOSS has shifted to education around waste reduction, compostable, recyclable or otherwise, rather than simply sorting waste properly.

Education is now more important than ever. ECOSS is a leader in bridging the gaps among government, industry, and small and minority-owned businesses to reduce waste. We as a society must take responsibility for the waste we create, especially as countries such as China no longer wish to be the world’s dump sites. That means first reducing how much we consume, secondly reusing what we can, before finally recycling products. ECOSS is working with businesses and communities to spread this “Reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra.

Without systemic changes in the policies that govern waste creation and management – such as incentivizing compostable utensils throughout the entire supply chain – Seattle’s growth as an environmentally sustainable hub will be stunted. Until local, regional and state policies engender more accessible and equitable waste management solutions, ECOSS is helping relieve symptoms of urban waste management.

Check out other waste management stories

Kent recycling makes tons of difference

Blue bins are now practically synonymous with recycling. Many know that soda cans and old newspapers go into recycling bins, destined to become other useful products.

But what about old electronics? Emptied propane tanks? Scrap metal leftover from a home project? These and many other materials can be recycled too, though often not as easily. Since 2016, ECOSS has worked with the City of Kent to help King County residents recycle less-common items such as refrigerators, concrete, tires and mattresses.

Learn more about Kent recycling events

In 2018, we helped with three free community recycling events, which collectively welcomed over 4,000 vehicles full of recyclables. The events altogether collected over 3,000 toilets, mattresses and other individual items plus over 300 tons of material like scrap metal, bulky wood debris and concrete!

ECOSS strives to make environmentally sustainable practices accessible to all. Many people are interested in reducing their environmental impact. We empower people to act on those interests and to let others know how they can make a difference, too.

Check out our other waste reduction projects

Update: First ECOSSolutions event = Awesome

The other week, we hosted the ECOSSolutions information session I mentioned in a previous blog entry. I thought it went quite well. The panel was informative about their respective programs and they gave clear, direct answers to questions from the audience.

Patrick Hoermann and Trevor Fernandes shared relevant stories about past experiences with former clients who saved money on hazardous waste disposal through financial incentives, while Jeff Ketchel demonstrated how easy it is to use the IMEX website to find or list waste materials. Michael Arbow of EcoLights NW and Yvonne Pascal and Dave Baugh of Total Reclaim spoke about disposal services for fluorescent lights, HVAC materials and e-waste. This combination of experts gave attendees disposal options for a wide range of materials.

The best part of the session was the great turnout from local businesses. 23 owners, managers and staff members attended the event, and several people stayed afterward to chat with each other and with the guest experts. Many said they enjoyed the casual, relaxed format of the session and a few made arrangements to follow up for future business or assistance opportunities.

Stay tuned for the next ECOSSolutions event, which is slated for some time this summer, topic TBA. Thanks to the Seattle Office of Economic Development, ECOSS staff and all the attendees who made this first session a success.


Is Brita greenwashing?

cartridgeI’ve seen the “30 minutes on a treadmill, forever in a landfill” commercial plenty of times and haven’t given it much thought. I haven’t been a bottled-water drinker for a while, and feel that for the most part, the message makes sense. However, in the last week we’ve changed filters in the pitchers at home and at work, and I checked the PUR water website to see if they’ve started a recycling program for their filters yet for my home pitcher (they haven’t). So the issue was still pretty fresh in my mind when I saw another one of the Brita commercials last night; this time it was “45 minutes in traffic, forever in a landfill.” I hopped online and checked Brita’s website, and they recently (as in this month) have started a recycling program for their cartridges in the US after some pushing last year. (Apparently in Germany, France, Ireland, Great Britain and Switzerland, this has been going on for a while). Clorox, the owner of Brita in North America, partnered with Whole Foods Markets and Preserve to roll out their recycling program. The reality for Seattle residents that there are NO Whole Foods locations in WA that support the Preserve Gimme 5 plastics recycling campaign as of now, and so the only option for recycling these cartridges is to send them to Preserve’s headquarters in Cortland, NY. According to Google Maps, that means the package has to travel 2772 miles from my house to Preserve, on a truck (and likely in and airplane) to be recycled, which just seems to me like trading one environmental impact for another. (Arguably, it would still have to be shipped if I dropped it off at a Whole Foods location, but at least there would be some additional cartridges to keep my little guy company, lessening the overall impact.) Luckily Preserve’s directions for how to mail the filter to them includes a plan for recycling the boxes and the packing, but it is still a far cry from the product stewardship the company has already demonstrated is possible in Germany. I think that it is safe to assume that a large number of people, when faced with what to do at the end of their filter’s 3-month life, will likely continue to throw the filter away, especially if they’re not aware that Brita recently made this change. Even in Germany, where the long-standing recycling process has fewer hoops to jump through and more locations for recapture, Brita only receives one out of four cartridges for recycling. While the first step should be for every concerned person to ask their Whole Foods manager to participate in Preserve’s Gimme 5 recycling program, there has to be a better option for recycling the cartridges. It makes me question whether the intent of their “Forever in a landfill” campaign is anything more than competitive strategy to beat all the bottled-water pushers, since they seem more concerned about eliminating bottled water waste than truly avoiding waste. Perhaps instead of focusing on the negative aspects of their competitors’ products, they should be think about how to be better stewards of their own.

-Audrey Chestnutt