You’ve heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and seen Chris Jordan’s shocking photos. Maybe you have even heard that the plastic in the oceans outweighs plankton six to one (at least, the nonwater-parts of the plankton and in some parts of the oceans). But have you heard about the elegantly simple solution lived out daily at Missoula, Montana’s Good Food Store?
It’s called a sanitizer: think of it as a dishwasher that uses heat instead of soap. The Good Food Store, a grocery store, employs one to sterilize used yogurt tubs, pickle jars, and other containers, then puts them out for customers to refill.
Yes, a po-dunk grocery store in Montana, aka, eastern Cascadia, is leading the way with its understated solution to a Cascadian and global problem. (Full disclosure: your author is a Griz.)
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According to a 2010 report by the US Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging constitute the largest product category of municipal solid waste generated in the country. They account for 30 percent of all solid waste, nearly 76 million tons. That’s a lot of yogurt tubs.
Salt on wounds: only 48 percent of those materials are recycled! Any third grader can tell you that “recycle” is a mere runner up to “reduce” and “reuse” in the hierarchy of virtues.
According to the EPA, manufacturing new plastic from recycled plastic requires two-thirds of the energy used in virgin plastic manufacturing. A nice graphic illustrating the benefits of reusing over recycling, with computers as an example, is here.
How can we whittle away at the enormous mountains of packaging waste? By improving the policies around reusing refillable containers.
Layne Rolston, communications director for the Good Food Store says he believes his store is unique in the United States in allowing sterilization, sharing, and refilling of customer containers. The store has been doing it for years and has effectively been grandfathered in. “If we tried starting it from scratch now,” Rolston says, “we probably couldn’t do it. But the [Missoula City/County] Department of Health has been very supportive. They realize it’s one step in reducing environmental impact, and they want us to continue the practice.”
I’ve asked around and haven’t found a single store in Oregon or Washington
that offers on-site washing and reuse of containers. (I haven’t checked in British Columbia or elsewhere in Cascadia. Do you know of one? Let me know in comments!)
“We’re the only store that I know of that does this,” says Rolston. “I’ve heard of other places trying around the country, but they all get shut down. Health departments don’t like the idea.”
The reason Good Food’s sterilizing dishwasher is so lonely? Phil Wyman, code enforcer
for Seattle-King County Public Health, points to a cluster of nearly nationwide regulations about food containers that prevent in-store reuse. You can peruse them here. (The color-coding reflects proposed amendments and changes. The state of Washington is currently reviewing amendments to Chapter 3-304.17C, which requires that when seeking a refill of your coffee in your paper cup, vendors are REQUIRED to throw that cup away and give you a new one. The proposed change will allow them to reuse that cup.)
The real culprit is “Chapter 4-603.17: Returnables, Cleaning for Refilling. . . . returned empty containers intended for cleaning and refilling with FOOD shall be cleaned and refilled in a regulated FOOD PROCESSING PLANT.” It prohibits grocery stores, coops, and other food institutions from doing what the Good Food Store does: sterilize reusable containers for their customers to, um, actually reuse.
What does it take to change this? Well, any jurisdiction can adopt its own rules, but as Wyman explains, the normal US process is for changes to flow from the federal government: the US Food and Drug Administration releases its “Model Food Code” every four years. That recommended food code then works its way out through policymaking bodies across the United States. State food-code boards review the model, add their own amendments, and then pass the code down to local jurisdictions to do the same. The whole process takes about four years. So, for example, the Seattle/King County Public Health adopts its 2009 food code just in time for the FDA to adopt its brand new 2013 model code.
Though it may sound bureaucratically comical, the process does have its merits, and it’s punctuated every two years with the Conference for Food Protection, which “brings together representatives from the food industry, government, academia, and consumer organizations to identify and address emerging problems of food safety and to formulate recommendations.”
And who decides what an “emerging problem” is? Anyone! Anyone can submit proposals to the conference. The bad news: the submission period for this year’s conference closed January 5th. For the current conference, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Food Safety submitted an issue addressing some of the environmental absurdities of 4-603.17 (“Reuse-Refill of Multi-use Tableware (To go containers)”), but not the whole “sterilizing must take place in a food processing plant” part. That will have to wait until the 2014 conference. Alas, it won’t be until December of 2013 before the submission period opens. Forms and instructions will be found on the Conference for Food Protection’s website. Fortunately, the group’s executive director thinks that allowing commercial facilities, not just food processing centers, to sterilize reusable containers has merit and would be something the conference would consider.
Even then, there’s no guarantee that the reusing-pickle-jars proposal will win the conference’s support, nor that it will become part of the FDA’s 2015 model food code, nor that Cascadian jurisdictions will adopt that section of the 2015 model code.
So, in the meantime, any jurisdiction can follow Missoula’s lead and adjust its rules to allow sterilization of consumer containers on-site. The FDA’s model food code is just federal advice. Localities set their own rules. You can help by sending a letter—or a yogurt tub—to the FDA or your local health department. Check these sites to get started: Washington, Oregon, or Seattle/King County (or specifically, the King County Food Protection Program).
While the policy fight unfolds, if you want to see the simplest solution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, you can stockpile your containers and take a trip to Missoula, Montana’s Good Food Store. If you call ahead, they may even show you their fancy dishwasher.
Chris LaRoche recently graduated with a Master’s in Public Administration from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, where he focused on developing community solutions to climate change, sustainability, and de-carbonizing the global economy. His previous incarnations include an inner-city school teacher, Spanish language translator, and organizer for interesting community endeavors.
All photos courtesy of the Good Food Store, Missoula, Montana.
It’s not that unique. First Alternative Coop in Corvallis, OR, has been doing this for awhile. Regardless, hope it catches on!
Yup, I was going to say the same! First Alt was my first co-op and after moving to Minneapolis, I’ve wondered why co-ops here haven’t done the same! Guess I need to look into the legal issues…
Thanks for the note, Andyg. Since finalizing this piece, I’ve also heard that the Sno-Isle Food Co-op in Everett also allows the practice, making a total of 3 so far in the greater Cascadia/PNW region. Whether or not that fits the definition of “unique”, I think it is indicative of the underlying policy problem that should be addressed.
People’s Food Co-op has several drawers in their bulk section: New containers (pay), new bags (free), used bags, used containers, and used bottles.
I’ve always loved their system, but when I’ve asked other co-ops they always cite health codes or something. Their co-op has been around over 30 years.
Whenever I visit Portland I stop by. I don’t know of anywhere else convenient to me to find bulk California olive oil or bulk Jerquee.
Olympia Food Co-op (both stores)have shelves of used containers and jars for member use. And egg cartons. We take our extras there to share with others.
PCC West Seattle used to have containers you could buy or you could bring your own to use for a whole mess o’ bulk food – including honey. I usually did just that. Granted, the plastic ones they sold (very inexpensively) would not be the best choice today – but have wondered for years why they stopped being a leader and responsible in waste reduction using best practices.
I’m not so sure about rewashing plastics–seems to me that a recent study showed that the plastic breaks down upon repeated washing and releases various chemicals (many that have not been studied as to health effects).
Glass seems to be the way to go as long as the labels are removed beforehand as the labels might contain bad things too that get entrained in the wash/rinse water and sprayed back onto the glass surfaces.
I second GeoHydro2011’s comment here. Aren’t there health/safety issues involved with repeat-washing low-grade plastic containers?
The Food Front in Portland, OR also allows customers to bring in their used containers.
Real Food Store in Helena, MT has reused containers
I believe I remember that New Seasons markets the the Portland area let me weigh empty containers I took to the store so I only paid for net weight of the contents when I checked out.
Several people have commented about bringing their own containers and refilling them in the store, after weighing them.
That’s a different model than Chris is writing about here, where the store sterilizers a returned containers and makes them available for all customers.
My coop has been using old glass jars since the 70’s back when the coop floor was still dirt! I always bring in my own used bags and jars, but there are plenty available for those who forget. Never heard of health codes forbidding it.
Same here in Oly. Containers made available for customer use. Maybe it’s a co-op thing, but unique if a regular grocery provides this service.
Despite the snotty reference to a “po-dunk grocery store in Montana” — Missoula? Seriously? — a great article and inspiring idea about reusing containers. I can get past the comment, but please remember that not everyone lives in Seattle or Portland, and likes it that way.
Thus the disclaimer, “Author is a Griz”. If it makes you feel better, I’m originally from Wolf Point.
Hmm, I would like to see their dishwasher…. Do the other stores that offer up a shelf of donated reusables also wash them?
Driving distance from Missoula, MT to The Dalles, OR 465 Miles / 748 Km. How many hours? 7 hours 34 mins. But I’m a couple hours up on anyone in Seattle, or even Portland so maybe it’s worth the trip.
Or of course, Olympia is even closer to everyone so definitely worth considering while you stockpile your containers to contribute to them.
However, I don’t have any more containers than I can use myself, so any of the stores that let me bring my own will do — and we have one right here in town at our mainstream Fred Meyer.
oops, Olympia is only “closer to everyone” if they don’t already live in Missoula, or Spokane, or Boise — sorry.
Thanks, this is great! I get TONS of push-back from PCC and Whole Foods when I want to use my jars for meat, cheese and deli items, but not a problem for other bulk. However, other local butchers, cheese shops, etc. look the other way, so I have started to frequent them.
I want to take an active role in changing some of these silly laws, thanks again.