Composting at The World’s Largest Natural Foods Supermarket Chain

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

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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, what with having to find the right haulers, composting facilities, and enough space in the stores 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 United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and more than 27,000 employees.

Company officials estimate that each of Whole Foods' stores generates an average of 13 tons of organic residuals and trash per 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 Of this, compostable materials (including food culls and trims, out-of-date food, floral trimmings, wet and waxed cardboard, wet paper, and used paper plates and cups) add up to 60 percent. That means that each store generates 7.8 tons per week, or 64,085 tons a year (for all stores), of organics that can be composted.

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 different programs.

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 of the western 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 1,290 stores it services.

'Community Recycling let me study the composting systems used at Von's and Ralph's grocery stores because it wanted our business,' notes Wright. Community Recycling started composting organics from Whole Foods' southern California stores and its regional bakery and commissary in June 2003 using the same system it has with other grocery chains.

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. Whole Foods employees put these culls directly into waxed cardboard boxes, which are stacked in the store's staging area with the heaviest boxes on the bottom layer and lighter boxes on top. The stacked boxes are then palletized. Whole Foods' trucks delivering produce backhaul the pallets of compostables to Whole Foods' distribution center in Vernon, California where they are placed in a compactor. Two to three times 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.

The future plan is for Community Recycling to collect the boxes of organics from the distribution center once a day with a tractor trailer rig, says Roger van der Wende, vice president of supermarket diversion for Community Recycling.

TRAINING EMPLOYEES AND MARKETING COMPOST

Wright devised a color-coded system to train employees to put materials in the proper containers: green container labels for compost, red labels for glass, metal and rigid plastic containers, blue labels for mixed paper, and yellow for plastics. All signage and training materials are printed in both English and Spanish. 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 the compostables. 'We take digital photos and put the best practice photos up on a website (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 chain grocery stores with similar sales,' notes Wright. 'During the audits, we looked in trash containers and all that should have been in there was trash.'

Composting has spread from Whole Foods' southern California stores, to others in Washington, northern California, Colorado, Texas, Oregon and British Columbia. Currently, organics from 58 stores are being composted at seven different composting facilities in Texas, Colorado, Arizona, California, Washington and British Columbia.

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 how much we're selling.' In February 2005, Whole Foods will begin selling 20-quart bags in its 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 at 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 industrial-scale composting facilities, like Nevada. It's crazy because that area really needs compost. Las Vegas has to bring topsoil in on trucks from California.'

Another challenge is finding space in the stores to stage recycling and composting. 'Major supermarkets like Ralphs and Von's started composting easily because they have back ends (nonretail areas) that are significantly larger than Whole Foods' back ends,' explains Wright. 'Whole Foods has a commitment to more retail space and less back end. The Whole Foods Markets in southern California, where there isn't much rain, solved the problem by doing the staging outside, but that's not an option everywhere. The best place to stage the compostables would be inside the produce cooler.'

Wright says Whole Foods won't be able to meet its goal of zero waste unless inexpensive biopolymers and compostable plastics are developed for food service and trash liners. 'Plastic bags cost half a cent,' he notes. 'There is no way that a biopolymer bag will be that cheap, due to lack of scale. Whole Foods is pushing for it, but with 200 stores it does not have enough volume. It would be wonderful for Whole Foods if one of the major grocery store companies gets interested in green plastics, because that would make it happen.'

Composting has caused stores to change their buying practices. 'We found that we were throwing out a lot of bananas and as a result, have reduced banana buying by about two percent,' Wright notes. 'In southern California, for example, we were buying a few too many papayas and mangoes. Whole Foods doesn't want its customers to show up and not have a high level of service and fresh, ripe produce, but if overbuying of produce can be reduced by two percent, there will be an annual savings of $219,000 per store.'

HOW IT'S DONE IN THE EAST

When Lee Kane began his job as environmental coordinator for Whole Foods' North Atlantic region in May 2003, he took charge of 24 stores and four facilities in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as six stores in the United Kingdom. All of the East Coast stores were doing some recycling, and one store in Hadley, Massachusetts had been hauling its food residuals to a local pig farmer for composting for the past three years.

Kane heard about the Supermarket Recycling Organics Initiative (SROI), a program put together by WasteCap of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Food Association, and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to help supermarket management teams divert their stores' food residuals and waxed/wet cardboard for composting (See 'Massachusetts Makes Strides With Commercial Organics Composting,' December 2002.) Kane used the SROI program model to encourage composting in the stores in his region. Like Wright, he also provided color-coded containers and bilingual signage for training.

Getting the employees to separate out organics for composting has been relatively easy. 'Many of the employees come to work at Whole Foods because they are committed to sustainable and environmental practices,' notes Kane. 'They are especially excited about composting, because before they saw this wonderful material mostly being incinerated in Massachusetts, and landfilled in the rest of the region.' Kane says there is also a strong financial incentive. 'We estimate that we can save $7,000 annually in a small-to-medium volume store and more in our higher-volume stores by composting because we pay lower tip fees for organics than trash,' he notes.

Of the 27 North Atlantic stores, 10 stores and the distribution center and commissary are now diverting their organics for composting. A new Whole Foods Market in Hingham, Massachusetts will be the first to open as a composting store. 'It's very exciting because the store has all the right equipment and training,' says Kane. 'The others had to be retrofitted for composting and the employees needed to be retrained to undo old habits.'

One unexpected benefit of composting is that the company is selling more of its recyclables. 'We are doing a better job of recycling. The recyclables are cleaner and fewer recyclables are going into the trash,' Kane says.

Kane has found it difficult to replicate Wright's program of backhauling pallets of compostables to the distribution centers. 'In California, the trucks are there at the stores delivering product, the compostable material goes right into the truck, and it all gets consolidated at the distribution center,' he says. 'The trucks to the Massachusetts and Rhode Island stores and two Manhattan stores go back to the distribution center with backhauled recyclable materials such as paper, cardboard and film plastics but not compostables. The current distribution center doesn't have space to deal with them. The trucks going to the Connecticut, New Jersey, and the remaining New York stores return full of other products. They are leased trucks and we have no opportunity to backhaul anything from those stores.' Whole Foods is planning to build a large distribution facility in Connecticut next year. 'We will then have the capability and intention of replicating the California ‘hub and spoke' model of backhauling and consolidating the compostables,' says Kane.

In Massachusetts, Whole Foods' organics are brought to two composting facilities — the We Care Environmental facility in Marlborough and Rocky Hill Farm in Saugus. We Care has been composting Whole Foods' organics since the fall of 2003. The facility had been receiving an average total of 85 tons a month of organics from three Massachusetts stores in Wayland, Bellingham and Newton. With the addition of the Hingham store, Kane estimates that the total average is now 100 to 130 tons/month. The organics are hauled from the four stores to We Care's facility by B. P. Trucking of Ashland, Massachusetts.

These materials arrive in compactors (none of the three stores use toters). 'It's the most economical approach for them,' says Bob Spencer, We Care's compliance manager. Whole Foods' staff put compostables in one compactor, says Kane. 'Our favorite scenario is putting the food waste right into the waxed cardboard boxes as they do in California. Then, we throw food, box and all into the compost compactor.' Trash goes into a separate compactor or roll off container. The third main stream, baled cardboard, is backhauled to the distribution center. Each load of compostables is inspected and digital photos are taken and sent to Kane, even if there are only a few items of contamination. 'We don't reject loads and we pull the contaminants out, but we send the photos for training,' says Spencer. 'We rarely have to send photos because there is little contamination'

'Toters would probably be the best solution in the Boston area stores because of the extremely tight footprint in the back rooms, but many of the stores have no room for them,' says Kane. 'Also, in order for a toter program to work, the hauler has to have enough route density to justify it. My stores alone wouldn't provide the density sufficient for a new hauler to be interested, and the haulers already collecting toters are maxed out.'

The Woodhue composting facility (also known as Eastern Organic Resources), located in Wrightstown, New Jersey, composts organics from five Whole Foods Markets in New Jersey and one in Philadelphia. Premier Waste Management of Hamilton, New Jersey was already hauling organics from a number of businesses to Woodhue, and began collecting organics directly from the Whole Foods stores in fall 2003. 'Premier hasn't gone to the system yet of collecting the organics from a Whole Foods distribution center,' says Mike Manna, Woodhue's vice president of sales and marketing. 'It's just a matter of getting it set up.' The New Jersey stores started out using toters for their organics. Four are now using compactors and the fifth is undergoing renovations so that compactors can be used.

None of Whole Foods' New York stores are currently having their organics composted. Manna says the problem is location, location, location. 'A number of the Whole Foods stores in New York are part of larger malls with co-op compactors, so the organics aren't being separated out,' he explains. Kane is working with two New York stores and a store in Connecticut to set up composting programs. 'Lack of space is a challenge in some stores because it's difficult to set up culling and sorting,' he says. 'It's taking time because either the composting facilities aren't there or hauling is a challenge. It takes the right partnership with a hauler to make the composting program work well. Some haulers really want to make it work and others have very little interest. It's a real mixed bag.'

Kane says that when he took the position, there were two major hauler partners in the Boston area. 'One of them already had been working with us to develop programs,' he adds. 'The other one is beginning to work on composting, and I'm looking forward to getting creative with them to get the rest of our stores on the program.'

He says that one of the haulers in his region has gone above and beyond the norm. 'They've provided extra pickups when needed at reasonable prices, and prepared the compactors to be as leak-proof and odor-proof as possible,' he notes. 'They have color-coded their compactor doors to match the color of the toters, and provided the right size containers so we're not paying more than we need to. They've also made a commitment to fair pricing so it's an easier sell to Whole Foods' management. The store team leaders are pretty committed to doing the right thing, but they're also business people and need to justify expenses.'

Kane wants to have all of Whole Foods' North Atlantic stores recycling compostables by the end of 2005. He also hopes to sell Whole Foods' compost in the North Atlantic stores, and is in discussions with composting facilities about developing ways to package and market the compost.

 

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