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Will Ohioans recycle?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/23/09 @ 10:15am

Ohio Grocers Association and Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced this week that they will supply recycling bins to stores throughout the state to collect plastic from shoppers as well as shrink-wrap from grocery products. Somewhat controversially, Grocers Association president Tom Jackson stated in an ODNR press release that he expects this to preclude government efforts to ban plastic bags ? efforts which are starting to rise in Seattle, Boston and already passed in San Francisco.

Is this a shrewd move to head off similar efforts to ban plastic bags in America's heartland or is it a viable way of diverting plastic from landfills and from being washed into streams and lakes?

Terrie Termeer, ODNR Deputy Director, Division of Recycling and Litter Prevention, thinks it's the latter. She says large retailers like Giant Eagle have been collecting plastic and in the past when markets for recyclables were still strong, made millions selling it through their wholesale distributors. Meanwhile, many smaller grocers don't have bins or arrangements for their plastic bag wholesaler to recycle.

"Right now, these trucks are going back to wholesalers empty. We provided grant money so smaller stores can have bins and haul (plastic bags) back at no cost to them."

ODNR plans to track the rate of returns in the 700 bins they will distribute, but they don't have a metric for success. (A voluntary return program in Australia, for one, had disappointingly low participation ? starting with a target of 50% reduction from 2002 to 2004. As of 2005, the voluntary program helped Australians reduce plastic bag use by only 21%, from 5.95 billion to 4.77 billion.)

Termeer says voluntary programs are the best way to get the Grocer's Association interested in environmental issues (she's doubtful they would accept a tax on plastics, such as the plastic bottle tax in Chicago, or pay for alternatives to plastic such as reusable totes. She also thinks any plastic bag ban would face a huge battle from the group).

"You may win the battle, but ultimately you lose the war. What we've been able to do here in Ohio is to work with them. We created the Ohio Composters Association, for example, which is trying to collectively address the issue (of food waste) rather than telling them what to do."

ODNR worked with Kroger to start a composting program in 24 grocery stores. First, Kroger sorted their trash and found that 50-75% of what they threw away is organic matter. "As a result, Kroger is looking to change their habits of how they can handle their composting."

Making the case for grocers to compost means helping them clear some hurdles, both economic and their preconceptions about whether it's worth the time and effort.

Composting is more economical for a store when another company recognizes the value of composting (to produce soil amendments for sale) and opens a facility nearby, Termeer says. A second issue slowing the growth of composting is the relatively low costs to send trash to the landfill in Ohio.

Still, Termeer is convinced that the arrival to Ohio of Whole Foods, which has a commitment to compost no matter how far the nearest compost facility is located, and efforts of sustainability groups to raise awareness is raising the bar.

"Customers are starting to demand (recycling and composting)," Termeer says.

If establishing a composting system takes more labor, what makes it worth it to the store?

"Composting can reduce the grocer's overall waste expenses. Disposal rates aren't that high here, maybe $45 a ton for trash and maybe $25 a ton to compost stuff. Your savings are burned up in fuel if you have to drive more than 50 miles from the store to the composter."

In Columbus, Whole Foods recoups some of the cost of composting by getting it back as mulch which it then sells. Sagamore Soils in Hudson is the closest EPA approved composting facility to Cleveland.

To work on changing minds at Kroger, ODNR hired a consultant with supermarket experience. "In the past, they considered waxed cardboard and crates waste. Now they're composting it." ODNR is putting the lessons from Kroger into a guidebook that will explain how grocery stores can set up a composting program.

Will it be customer demand for environmental protection or government regulation capture the billions of pounds of plastic washing into the ocean?

"Because recycling isn't mandated in the state, it's up to each municipality (if they want to ban or not). The City of San Francisco banned plastic bags," Termeer says. "We're quietly watching."

  • Read more about efforts to recycle, tax or ban plastic bags here.
  • Read more about statewide initiatives to increase composting and recycling here.

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