The Road to Zero


From Farmers Markets to Supermarkets,
Rethinking What We Throw Away
by Rachel Trachten


Covered from head to toe in plastic bags, a hideous creature lumbers slowly through the farmers market in Jack London Square. The monster stops to chat with shoppers, complimenting them on their reusable bags or asking why they haven’t brought any. The creature likes to mention that the costume represents the average number of plastic bags-500-that most people use in a year.


Discarded plastics typically end up in landfill or oceans, contributing to modern horrors like the estimated 100,000 marine mammals that die each year trapped or sickened by the plastic litter, or the mountain of debris-twice the size of Texas-floating in the Pacific Ocean. The man who first came upon this trash heap, Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, summed the problem up succinctly: “We’ve created a throwaway society.”


Consumption as a Way of Life


Such shortsighted practices were not always the American way. During World War II, for example, not only were food items strictly rationed, but the government also urged Americans to conserve and recycle every scrap of rubber, metal, and paper. At the end of the war, when manufacturers needed a way to keep the economy strong during peacetime, they turned to disposable products and planned obsolescence. “Our enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life,” said retailing analyst Victor Lebow in 1948. “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”


Disposables quickly made their way into the kitchen as the wartime focus on Victory Gardens transformed into a culture of convenience.


In the 1950s, foods like frozen fish sticks, canned peaches, and TV dinners brought not only all their wrappings and containers, but also a spike in advertising to promote these new edibles. And this trend continues. According to author and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, 80 percent of the cost of food eaten in the home today goes not to a farmer, but to industrial cooking, packaging, and marketing.


The Goal of Zero Waste


At local farmers markets, the wartime custom of reuse is back in fashion.  “We’re trying to change the mindset of throwing things away,” says Ben Feldman, program manager for the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.  Last April, the Ecology Center in Berkeley announced a “zero waste zone” campaign for its three farmers markets, and became the first such group in the nation committed to eliminating all plastic bags and packaging. Unlike glass, which can be melted down and turned into new glass of the same quality, plastics aren’t truly recyclable: after a few rounds of “downcycling” (creating a lower-quality plastic from an existing one), plastics typically become garbage. With a grant from, the markets purchased compostable bags to replace plastic ones and began charging 25 cents per bag. The Urban Village Farmers’ Market Association, which runs 10 area markets, will follow suit in January. “The compostable bags are better, but still require energy, resources, and time to create,” says Feldman. Paper bags present these drawbacks as well. “It’s really about getting people to bring their own bags and to reuse them,” he adds.


Nine months after Berkeley’s campaign was announced, many shoppers have gotten the message and bring cloth bags, baskets, and reusable plastic containers to the markets. Most vendors have switched to vegetable-based plastics for packaged foods, although food safety regulations still require plastic wrap for meat and fish. Savvy customers sometimes bring food containers, such as the stackable, stainless-steel To-Go Ware sets, which are ideal for holding prepared foods and their sauces in separate chambers.


The Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, with sites in 14 East Bay cities, puts the focus on education and reusable materials. “This is a new idea for many people,” says Special Projects Coordinator Sarah Nelson, who often dons the bag monster costume to get people talking about reuse. “We have an educational challenge in trying to overcome the convenience of plastic,” she adds. To get her point across, Nelson holds contests to reward shoppers leaving the market with the least number of items bagged in plastic. Quiz-style games teach shoppers about the environment and about what to do with “throwaways”-which items belong in recycling, which in compost, and which in trash.


Local governments, including those in San Jose, Santa Clara, and Marin counties, are working on ordinances to ban or limit plastic bags, about a million of which end up in San Francisco Bay each year. In February 2010 the city of Berkeley will bring a proposal banning plastic bags (except those used for take-out food) to the City Council, according to Associate Management Analyst Tania Levy. The proposal also calls for a tax on many paper bags.


A Daily Struggle


Single-serving, double-wrapped food products like juice boxes and food cups are common sights in today’s supermarkets. Leading a trend toward less packaging and more reuse is Whole Foods Market, a national chain with four East Bay stores.


Well-marked bins for compost, trash, and recycling are prominent in its stores; some sites also collect batteries, toner, and electric gadgets through the E-Cycle program, and hard-to-recycle number-5 plastics like yogurt and margarine containers through a program called Gimme 5. They’ll even take your old wine corks and have them turned into corkboards.


“The goal,” says In-Store Educator Maryssa Wanlass, “is to put nothing into the landfill, but to divert [material] to compost or recycling.” Getting people to put the proper items in the right bins is “a daily struggle,” she says. A monthly audit evaluates the level of contamination-items in the wrong bin. The current success rate stands “at about 80 percent,” says Wanlass.  Encouraged by San Francisco’s 2007 ban on plastic shopping bags, Whole Foods announced in 2008 that it would follow suit. The stores continue to provide small plastic bags for produce, although Wanlass hopes that people will consider going without. “You don’t really need to put your kale in plastic,” she says.


Wanlass views leftover food as a big opportunity for diverting waste.  “We try to use it within the store first and then donate it, often to the Alameda County Food Bank. Composting is the last option; if it’s edible we try to get it into someone’s hands.”


Making green decisions isn’t always a matter of black and white.  For example, offering more foods loose in bins sounds like an efficient way to reduce packaging, but Wanlass says that a surprising number of people take some nuts or dried fruit, but then change their mind, leaving the store with food that can’t be put back into the bins. Compostable containers also come with pros and cons-Whole Foods has been using plant-based bulrush products (100 percent compostable), but the material is difficult to use when it gets wet. Many of the cornbased biodegradable plastics are made from genetically modified corn, a practice Whole Foods doesn’t want to support. The stores have incorporated potato-based utensils called Spudware for deli items, but still use corn-based cups for cold drinks.


Smaller businesses are taking similar steps and struggling with their own dilemmas. For Hugh Groman, owner of Hugh Groman Catering and Greenleaf Platters, getting an Alameda County green certification three years ago was just a first step. “It was a great process,” he says, “because they gave us so many ideas about how to be more green: Change to compact fluorescent lighting, switch to low-flow, high-pressure dish sprayers, composting and recycling in our kitchen as well as at our events.” Evidence of green-think is in full view at the catering kitchen, from biodegradable lunch bags to the pile of cardboard boxes reused daily for shopping trips to the Berkeley Bowl.


Groman uses purveyors who focus on organic and sustainable foods, and he cooks with the seasons. Occasionally, though, clients have other ideas. Shrimp, a favorite among customers, presents a problem.  “It’s imported from Thailand and it’s all farmed,” Groman says glumly. “I’m always looking for better alternatives.” And then there’s plastic wrap, a dilemma he shares with vendors at the farmers markets.  “It’s my Achilles heel,” he says, adding, “I don’t know what we can use successfully to replace it.”


Bringing It Home


Opportunities to reduce waste await in any kitchen. One person might begin by covering leftovers with a plate or lid instead of using plastic wrap or foil; another might simply decide to cook what’s in the pantry before buying more food.


Underlying these daily choices in our home or business is a larger question: “How can we shift our habits and mindset to create systems that will sustain the planet?” The answer is complex, but also simple.


“At the end of the day,” says Maryssa Wanlass of Whole Foods, “it still


needs to be about individuals caring enough to take action.” •


Freelance writer and editor Rachel Trachten is a regular contributor to the East Bay Monthly and Conscious Dancer magazines, and a columnist for Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and anthologies on parenting and marriage.




Algalita Marine Research Foundation:


The Ecology Center/ Berkeley Farmers’ Markets:


Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association:


Watch their video on the project at :




A fantastic blog from the East Bay with lots of ideas on how to go forward:


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