Natural Foods Merchandiser

How Green Is My Deli?

In just one year, Americans throw away 138 billion straws and coffee stirrers; 110 billion cups; 58 billion plastic forks, knives and spoons; and enough plastic bags to wrap the planet 4,000 times—and that's just the plastics.

Although it's impossible not to toss some stuff away, recycling experts say that foodservice businesses can significantly reduce the waste stream, but it takes some planning, training and creative thinking.

To start evaluating how "green" your deli operation is, begin with a Dumpster dive. "That's what I do to see what's in a company's garbage," says Anita Comer, who owns Waste-Not Recycling in Pierce, Colo. "Then I can evaluate what kind of products are being thrown away and if any of them can be replaced with something else."

Comer first takes aim at white-paper products—cups, plates and bowls. If they're white, she explains, it means they've been bleached. Lots of chemicals, including chlorine, are used in the bleaching process, which means toxic ingredients are being introduced to the environment, embedded in the paper and eventually leached into landfills.

She recommends replacing those products with unbleached brown-paper items, which are a bit more expensive but can be composted. Small brown boxes, coated to prevent liquid from being absorbed, are available for use at salad bars and delis. In many communities this type of cardboard can be recycled. "Technology is improving to get the fibrous material back out of those containers," Comer says.

Cafés and salad bars with sit-down areas should always offer washable plates and bowls, glasses and flatware. "Prevent waste from being generated in the first place; that's the best," Comer says.

Cafés should also give customers some incentives that send a positive environmental message, says Rick Meis, president of Treecycle Recycled Paper in Bozeman, Mont. Many coffee joints give customers discounts when they purchase the shops' mugs. The same could be done with various containers for other prepared deli items.

"If a deli advertises that they take containers back, that would create a clientele, save money and take trash out of the waste stream," Meis says.

A green message appeals to customers. Meis says one café owner in Helena, Mont., decided to buy brown unbleached bags for to-go orders. Because the bags were more expensive than the white ones she had been using, she explained the eco-logic of using the new bags to her customers and then added 5 cents to every to-go order. She worried that they would object; instead, she was complimented.

Ecologically friendly products do cost more, although it's tough to say exactly how much. Brown cups or bags might cost 5 percent more than comparable white products, and biodegradable plates might cost up to five times as much as plastic plates.

While most people think of using "green" products as strictly an act of environmental consciousness, store managers can't overlook potential savings. Using recyclable and reusable products cuts down on what goes in the Dumpster, and that reduces the trash bill.

But Meis, whose company distributes environmentally friendly cups, plates, salad boxes, bakery bags, hot cups and other paper products, hopes that ecological awareness, ultimately, trumps the bottom line.

"Let's move away from using these poisons," he says. "We don't need them."

Joseph P. Lewandowski is a freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colo. He can be reached at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 12, 16

Biodegradable Materials Fuel Green Dream

There's good news on the trash front: A new generation of biodegradable plastic products is beginning to replace the billions of conventional plastic bowls, plates, forks, bags and containers carted to landfills every year.

Made from corn and potato starch, limestone, and synthetic materials, these new plastics break down completely and can be added to a compost heap.

These more earth-friendly products have caught the attention of major corporations that see the profit potential and are gearing up to produce biodegradable products in great quantity. The Dow Chemical Co., DuPont and Eastman Chemical Co. are investing in research, and last spring, Cargill Dow LLC opened a plant north of Omaha, Neb., where it manufactures NatureWorks PLA, a corn-derived plastic used to make disposable dishes, flatware, packaging and dairy bottles.

Biocorp North America, a small, publicly traded company based in Los Angeles, supplied biodegradable products—some made from NatureWorks PLA—to the Olympic games in Sydney and Salt Lake City.

"The interest in biodegradable and food recycling has never been higher," says Steve Mojo, director of the International Biodegradable Products Institute in New York.

Biodegradables present their own set of environmental challenges, though. For the products to be environmentally benign, they must be composted. If they are simply added to existing landfills, few problems are solved. In landfills, organic materials decompose slowly, or sometimes not at all, because little oxygen is available in the deep piles to aid the decomposition process. What does decompose emits methane gas—a major source of air pollution.

As part of a compost pile, the new biodegradable cups, cutlery and plates break down in a month or two.

Cities and towns nationwide are working to keep organic materials out of landfills by setting up large community composting facilities. Some towns and cities require residents to place vegetable scraps and yard wastes in separate containers. San Francisco has set up a voluntary composting program. Since Hutchinson, Minn., set up its composting facility, the amount of organic material sent to the town landfill has declined 16 percent.

At the Sydney Olympic Games, about 14 million pieces of food-related biodegradable plastics were composted instead of buried. "In Sydney, we diverted 80 percent of the waste generated at the games away from the landfill," says Biocorp North America Chairman and CEO Frederic Scheer.

At the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Biocorp supplied 700,000 biodegradable beverage cups.

For now, dishes and utensils made from biodegradable materials cost twice as much as those made from traditional plastics. But the prices are expected to come down as more manufacturing facilities are built.

Scheer says that some major foodservice suppliers, such as Aramark Corp., have begun to carry biodegradables.

Recycling and composting programs to reduce landfill wastes were implemented in Europe and Japan years ago. The statistics show the results: The average American sends more than 2,700 pounds of waste to the landfill every year, compared with just 800 pounds per person in Western Europe.

For more information about recycling, earth-friendly products and biodegradable materials, visit:

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 8/p. 16

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