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Mission zero waste: How one co-op managed its Earth Month challenge

Mississippi Market in St. Paul, Minnesota
Consumers must work together to reduce the use of plastic and extra packing in natural foods and products, Mississippi Market learned.

The Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op, which has three locations in St. Paul, Minnesota, held a Zero Waste Shopping Challenge in April. Board chair Heather Haynes challenged herself, general manager Gail Graham and consumers to shop package-free. We spoke with Haynes and Graham about the response they got from customers, the challenges they faced, and what they learned in the process. We also asked a representative from National Co+op Grocers to chime in about broader efforts underway.

First, tell us how this came about, and what kind of response you got.

Haynes: I really wanted to reexamine how I was purchasing things to see if I could cut out all plastic, and all packaging in general. It started as a personal challenge, but we felt we really wanted to broaden it. I decided blog about it, and we made the call to customers as well.

Graham: I think we got a smattering of interest. I had people commenting, saying they were following along and interested, or that it had sparked ideas for things they could do as well.

Heather Haynes Mississippi Market Seed SaverWhat did you learn along the way that may not have been obvious starting out?

Haynes: For me, and what I was blogging about, was that I really couldn’t do it alone. I could write 100 comment cards, but if no other members were using their purchasing power to influence what we carry and what manufacturers are doing, then I wasn’t going to be able to do much myself. We really need to use our collective power, rather than go at it alone.

Working in the industry, in natural products as well as conventional grocery, we can begin to influence suppliers to be able to operate in a more environmentally sustainable fashion.

What are some other obstacles?

Haynes: One of the things that was highlighted in talking to people is that it can be very challenging to balance the need for convenience with the desire for less packaging.

Bringing people to the point where they’re willing to let go of some convenience is important. Our customers tend to be receptive because they’re very values-driven—that’s why they’re members of the coop. We’re part of NCG (National Co+op Grocers). They’re developing a task force to bring some of us together, so we’ll be looking at and examining how to get plastics out of our store.

Did you discover anything that, looking ahead, will be useful or necessary for scaling this kind of effort further?

Gail Graham Mississippi Market (Rebecca-Wilson Photography)Graham: We need to be educating our customers about the choices we’ve made. For example, the straws don’t look much different than the plastic straws. We need to be highlighting around the store, in the deli, making clear which items are compostable, and we do have compost bins in the store for those things. And striking the right balance is important. You don’t want to have signage everywhere in the store, but some signage is important.

Haynes: That education piece is huge. Putting this in front of people is so important and continuing to work collectively to make a difference.

We also checked with National Co+op Grocers, which represents retail food co-ops around the country, about similar efforts on the national level. Sustainability Manager Sheila Ongie had this to say: 

Working toward zero waste is an issue that food co-ops and their shoppers care about, whether that is eliminating wasted food, avoiding unnecessary packaging or replacing hard-to-recycle materials. We find it concerning that even with widely available recycling infrastructure, only about 9% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled, which falls below both the European rate of 25% and global average of 14%. [Editor’s note: Ongie’s sources, respectively, are the Environmental Protection Agency, Global News, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.]

We know that globally the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic enters the ocean every minute and that if we do nothing that rate could quadruple by 2050. We also know that bioplastics such as PLA do not biodegrade in the ocean and are, therefore, not a solution to this very concerning issue. [Editor’s note: Data also comes from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. PLA, or polyactic acid, is a plastic polymer made from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane. It’s often used in 3D printers.]

As retailers, we’re positioned between suppliers and consumers with the opportunity to influence both, including which materials are used and the ultimate fate of those materials. We’re very interested in how we can best leverage our unique position to answer the question, “What can we do to eliminate ocean plastics?” With the formation of our new Better Packaging Solutions Committee, made up of representatives from food co-ops themselves, we’re ready to dive deeper in search of solutions.

We’re seeking solutions that meet the practical needs of food packaging (like food safety and preservation), while also helping us truly reduce ocean plastics and work toward achieving zero waste overall. While the committee’s work is just about to get started, we expect that it will result in a bold approach that will have an impact.

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