SEATTLE — In response to member concerns about sustainable packaging and waste reduction, PCC Natural Markets here has instituted several ongoing efforts to stock products that favor environmentally friendly packaging, and to educate its members about concepts such as composting.
“Sustainable packaging is of huge interest to PCC shoppers, whether it's the protective, promotional and/or informational packaging of the products they buy, or the packaging used to take those products home,” said Diana Crane, the eight-unit cooperative's director of sustainability. “The latter is evident by the overwhelming response we got last October from shoppers after we banned plastic shopping bags and began selling our reusable totes at cost. More than half of our shoppers now bring their own bags.”
In addition, Crane said that 61% of co-op members surveyed at PCC's recent annual meeting said they wanted to know more about the co-op's efforts regarding waste reduction practices. Specific requests, she said, included Styrofoam-free packaging products, products not covered in plastic wrap, and alternatives to standard plastic deli containers.
“Concern about product packaging is expressed through customer letters and emails, conversations with staff at the store level, and … appreciation for articles we publish on the subject in our member newsletter, the Sound Consumer,” said Crane. “Efforts to reduce waste of any sort are applauded by our shoppers; for example, we introduced double-sided receipts in June — that will lead to an estimated annual savings of 1,200 miles in receipt tape — and they love them.”
The co-op prides itself on its sustainability efforts, including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) store designs certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, extensive selections of organic and locally grown produce and regionally raised meats. PCC's multi-pronged approach toward reduction of packaging waste is no exception.
“Environmentally sensitive packaging is an important consideration in selecting the products we sell — particularly health and beauty aids that often are heavy on unnecessary packaging,” Crane said. “We monitor and research commercially viable and available packaging options, speak directly to manufacturers about the packaging needs of PCC, work with them on reducing delivery packaging and share information with our vendors and suppliers.”
PCC also works with the University of Oregon's Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association, which, among other sustainability initiatives, is dedicated to a zero-waste approach to packaging, Crane said.
“This approach, according to the FTSLA's member declaration, includes: one, reducing the amount of packaging we use; two, actively participating in the development of packaging that is reusable, recyclable and/or biodegradable; three, considering packaging material contents when making all purchasing decisions; and four, collaborating with buyers and suppliers on creative solutions which eliminate unsustainable packaging through the value chain.”
At the store level, PCC has taken all of the recent news reports and concerns regarding the environmental impact of discarded plastic water bottles and turned this into an opportunity for its shoppers to help. The co-ops offer bulk water, stainless steel personal water bottles and home water filtration systems, with displays outfitted with signage that explains the environmental benefits of these alternatives in comparison to buying water in plastic bottles.
PCC leads by example as well, instituting recycling and composting of cardboard, plastics, film and food waste at all eight of its existing stores and its headquarters office. The co-op was recognized for these extensive efforts last year, winning the “Best Workplace for Recycling” award from the King County (Wash.) Solid Waste Division. More recently, while doing a gut renovation on its soon-to-be opened ninth location in Edmonds, Wash., the co-op managed to recycle 106 out of 109 tons of materials removed during the process.
Educational challenges still remain, however. Crane noted that recycling has become routine for many residents of the greater Seattle area, thanks to municipal curbside recycling programs that have been in place since the late 1980s. However, she said, many shoppers are still unfamiliar with the concept of composting, which helps many new types of packaging — such as plant-based biodegradable plastics — to disintegrate into soil, rather than take up landfill space.
“Composting is still something consumers are getting used to,” Crane noted. “They are understandably confused; many non-compostable packaging options look similar, if not identical, to compostable ones. The most conscientious efforts can be thwarted by misunderstandings as to how and where packaging can be composted … at home, work and public places, particularly restaurants. At PCC locations it isn't as challenging, as we have both recycling and composting procedures and signage in place, but many other food-related businesses do not offer separate, clearly marked waste receptacles. If an ordinance the City of Seattle recently proposed is passed — which would require compostable foodservice items as of July 2009 — there will be a great deal more public education about composting in general.”