The Sustainability Buzz

Why the Obvious Solution Isn’t Always the Best When It Comes to Sustainability

Wegmans prepared food sectionRecently an article appeared in The Morning Call that seemed surprising and a bit disheartening.  The Wegmans supermarket located in Allentown, PA, has opened a new Market Café with seating capacity for 240 that allows recycling of cups but not of the utensils and the plastic clamshells in which the food is packaged.  In fact, those clamshells are headed for the trash.  Wait!  What’s going on here?  Wegmans is one of the leaders in sustainability in the grocery business.  As David Livingston, a grocery store industry analyst from Milwaukee, WI, said, “They are very conscious regarding the environment. Generally, I don’t want to question Wegmans, because usually they are right.” Has Wegmans been greenwashing all these years?

The answer to the Wegmans Café sustainability choices provides a good example of a situation where the obvious sustainability solution is not necessarily the best solution.  The most straightforward solution seems to be to set up a recycling program for the clamshells and utensils.  But it turns out that recycling plastics contaminated by food is not that easy.  Even if a recycler will take the plastic, the value of the recycled plastic is less than the cost of separating out the food and cleaning the plastic to a point of recyclability, probably costing Wegmans for disposal rather than paying Wegmans for recycling.

Since one component of sustainability is economic viability, these costs and those of other options need to be factored into the equation.  According to the article, using reusable (washable) china and glassware is also cost-prohibitive.  Compostable plates and utensils offer other challenges.  Not all composting facilities are equipped to operate at the high temperatures required to effectively break down the compostable items.  So while many facilities can accept food for composting, adding the plates and utensils into the mix reduces the number of available facilities.

Tucked into the article is another statistic that significantly affects the cost/benefit equation, although the author of the article did not identify it as such.  More than half of the food sold at the Market Café is sold as take-out.  That means that more than 50% of the sales can’t be made with reusable, washable china, glassware and utensils.  If those take-home containers are made of compostable materials, they can’t be recycled through the standard domestic waste-stream system in most municipalities.  Dumped into the trash, compostable materials are a bad addition to landfills.  Their decomposition produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas over twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.

A second component of sustainability is people.  As Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale pointed out, switching from clamshell packaging to paper, as McDonald’s did several years ago, is not an option because so much of what the Market Café sells is ethnic cuisines that are sauce-based.  Wegmans’ customers would not be happy trying to transport pad thai home wrapped in paper.

Looking at the situation from the three components of sustainability – people, planet and profit – the most sustainable solution turns out to be putting the food in recyclable plastic containers which are made of 40% less plastic resin than other designs.  More than 50% of those recyclable plastic containers are taken home by the customer with at least a reasonable chance of being rinsed out and recycled curbside.  Taken in conjunction with the full scope of Wegmans’ sustainability program at the Allentown store (825 tons of recycled cardboard, 118 tons of recycled hard plastic, 16 tons of recycled plastic bags, 328 tons of compostable kitchen scraps and 21 tons of food donated to food pantries and soup kitchens) in the course of a year, the choice of recyclable plastic clamshells, a portion of which will go to a landfill, probably represents a trade-off that makes sense for Wegmans financially.  Grocery stores operate on vanishingly thin margins.  Given all the constraints in this situation, this would seem to have been an intelligent, comprehensive solution.

The choices made here provide an excellent example of the need to approach sustainability holistically.  Rather than choose the obvious solution for an isolated situation (the Whac-a-Mole approach to sustainability), Wegmans has instead chosen to evaluate all the components of the Market Café process within the context of the store’s entire sustainability program to come up with an appropriate compromise solution that maintains economic viability, pleases customers and protects the planet.  Good business strategy?  For sure.  Greenwashing, it’s not.

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