By Peg Champion, GreenTown Los Altos Correspondent
Local restaurants and schools are joining GreenTown Los Altos in an effort to eliminate Styrofoam® and non-recyclable plastics used in food service. An innovative buyers’ cooperative is reducing landfill waste by replacing petroleum-based products with compostable materials.
GreenTown Los Altos formed the business co-op in 2010 to provide restaurants with compostable takeout containers and food-service utensils from Palo Alto-based World Centric at a price 25 percent below what they would pay on their own. “The program became more compelling in March 2010, when the Los Altos City Council awarded the new waste contract to Mission Trail Waste Systems,” says Mike Barnes, co-chair of the co-op. “A key element of that contract was the collection of organics.”
Under the contract, Mission Trail collects and commercially composts yard and food waste, such as vegetable and meat scraps, food-soiled paper and compostable containers. The composting process produces beneficial soil fertilizer and reduces methane, a potent greenhouse gas created when organic matter is land-filled. A 2008 GreenTown Los Altos solid-waste study discovered that a whopping 40 percent of Los Altos’ landfill waste was organics, and it urged the city council to include organics collection and composting in the new waste-service contract.
As much as 21 tons of trash have been kept out of the landfill over the past year as a result of the co-op. “The goal of our program is to reduce waste by eliminating Styrofoam® and those plastics not typically recycled (# 3, 4, 5, 6) from the landfill,” says co-chair Mary Clark Bartlett. Bartlett is owner of Epicurean Group, a founding co-op member. Her sustainable food-service company, headquartered in Los Altos, provides healthy food to schools and businesses throughout the Bay Area including Pinewood Schools, St. Francis High School and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
Barnes says that Epicurean Group’s participation provided the deep discount that co-op members enjoy. “The large volume they purchase from the co-op earns all the other, smaller members the same discounted rate.” The discount lowers the cost of the compostable materials to the same price range as non-compostable products. Co-op members in Los Altos include Brian’s Restaurant, Chef Chu’s, Sumika and Tom’s Depot. There is no fee to become a member, and membership is open to all Bay Area businesses.
Local schools are making the switch, too. GreenTown Los Altos is underwriting a program at Los Altos High School (see photo) to replace polystyrene lunch trays with compostable ones. After hearing a presentation from Barnes last spring, the high school’s Green Team raised the necessary funds for a pilot project. Students voted to continue the program this school year and GreenTown stepped in to provide funding. Program coordinators estimate that the program, set to launch Oct. 10, will eliminate more than 3,400 foam trays from the landfill this school year. Mountain View High School is also considering a similar program.
Expanded polystyrene foam – Styrofoam® – contains styrene and benzene, compounds that are suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins. According to Save the Bay, an environmental organization that tracks marine debris, Styrofoam® is the second most abundant beach debris in California. A bill to ban the use of polystyrene foam products in California, SB 568, passed in the state senate this year. Proponents expect a similar bill to be introduced during the 2012 legislative session. More than 50 cities and counties in California have banned foam food containers. “We think it’s a matter of time before polystyrene foam is banned,” says Barnes. “Our co-op is helping businesses make a cost-effective transition to healthy, sustainable materials.”
Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and the principal of Champion Organic Communications. Her work focuses on communication and education strategies to encourage sustainable behavior. For more information visit www.ChampionOrganic.com
Los Altos High School freshmen Laurel O’Such, Carly Cohen and Daniel Rosenbaum place the new compostable trays and food waste into the correct collection bin.