Ecology Center Wins Zero Waste Achievement Award from California Resource Recovery Association

The California Resource Recovery Association chose the Ecology Center’s Berkeley Farmers’ Market as the winner of the 2010 Zero Waste Achievement award. The Ecology Center has long been working toward a Zero Waste future, and in 2009, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market became the first farmers’ market in the nation to eliminate the distribution of plastic bags and packaging. Our Zero Waste model has been replicated at other markets across the state and nation, including the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market; Fairfax Farmers’ Market; Temescal Farmers’ Market; Delmar Farmers’ Market in Albany, NY; Sunnyvale Farmers’ Market; and Santa Clara Farmers’ Market. We hope that many others will follow suit! In order to be recognized in this way, we had to make several changes to the way we ran our markets.

In creating Zero Waste Zones at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, the Ecology Center eliminated up-stream sources of garbage, the garbage cans themselves, and all discards that cannot be either composted or recycled. Vendors were required to replace plastic bags and utensils with compostable alternatives. (While there are still a number of plastic products for which vendors have demonstrated that no viable alternative packaging exists, we are hopeful that as the market for compostable alternatives grows, we will be able to phase these out as well.) This policy was coupled with public education that increased customer awareness of how to properly dispose of compostable or recyclable alternatives to plastic.

According to surveys conducted post-implementation of these zero waste policies, the consumption of single-use carry out bags (including compostable and paper bags) has been reduced by over 80%. One incentive the Berkeley Farmers’ Market provides for customers to bring their own bags is a $0.25 bag fee customers pay for each biodegradable bag they request. We want customers to realize that while compostable bags are a step up from plastic ones, they are no substitute for reuse in achieving a truly zero waste market. In a pinch, any shopper can pick up a free reused bag from our bag reuse station.

One significant key to supporting participation in such a zero waste program is the availability of a regional composting and food scrap program, besides a citywide recycling program. The Ecology Center has long been a leader in the recycling industry, setting up one of the first curbside recycling programs in the nation in 1969. We continue to operate a curbside recycling program in contract with the City of Berkeley. Food scrap recycling at the market also goes back many years, predating the citywide food scrap program in Berkeley by a number of years. Prior to city-sponsored pickup, food scraps were brought back to the Ecology Center and composted in a compost pile on-site.

The Ecology Center remains committed to rigorous standards at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. Biodegradable bags and take-out ware must be made from non-genetically modified sources. We researched the distinction between bags that are labeled “degradable” versus “biodegradable” or “compostable.” And last year, the staff visited Grover Environmental Products in Tracy, CA, the facility with which the city of Berkeley contracts to compost its food scraps and yard waste. Read more about what we learned there.

A year after the launch of the Zero Waste program, we have 100% vendor participation and customer participation of nearly 70% bringing their own bags. Currently, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market diverts three full 64-gallon bins of foods scraps (approximately 900lbs) per week, amounting to almost 23 tons over the last year. 45 gallons (150lbs) of recyclables (primarily glass) are diverted per week, yielding almost eight additional tons of diverted material. Our hope is that the Berkeley Farmers’ Market can continue to serve as a replicable model for others.

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