Monday, August 10, 2009

Montavilla Farmers Market Takes the Plunge with Durable Dishes

This is no ordinary stack of dirty dishes.



These dishes are part of the Durable Dish Pilot Project for the Montavilla Farmers Market (MFM) at SE Stark and 76th in Portland, Oregon. What is a "durable dish"? It is one you can use over and over and over again. You probably have some in your home. Now they are being pioneered at a Farmers Market. Start drooling: that green salsa on your tamale just got even tastier.

Through a grant from Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Montavilla Farmers Market purchased 108 plates, 48 cups, and 150 forks for use at their market. It's a pretty straightforward process: Volunteers distribute the plates, forks, and cups to the food vendors at the beginning of the market. The vendors then serve their food on the plates. People then sit down in the eating area and eat their food. When finished, they bring their serviceware to the the trash station. This month, because it is a pilot project, volunteers take their plates, and ask folks to fill out a survey about their experience.

The feedback from the food vendors has been positive: they are able to present their food artistically, and they are also able to cut costs because they do not need to purchase as much disposable serviceware. Farmer market goers are also enthusiastic: they like the plates, cups, and forks because they create a nicer eating experience. Someone also wrote on their feedback form that "the plates don't blow away in the wind." One person said that they always bring their mug for coffee, but that they were never going to bring a fork and plate from home. Now, they are psyched because they have a waste-free option of eating food at the market.

At 2pm, when the market closes, a designated volunteer brings the dishes to Thatchers, a local restaurant. At Thatchers, she loads the dishes into an industrial washer where the dishes are washed, rinsed, and sanitized. She then stacks the dishes and brings them back to the market where they are put away, ready for next week. The whole process takes 20 minutes.

I met with Kristin Wildensee who organizes the trash at the MFM to get the full story. She is a superstar. I thought I loved waste reduction and recycling. No no. Kristin does it all. Better yet, she gives the attendees of the farmers market the tools they need to do it all. When I say, "Do it all," I mean reduce waste and properly recycle.

RECYCLING NERDS, KEEP READING FOR THE FULL STORY

Let's start at the beginning. When the Montavilla Farmers Market started out in 2007, Kristin had just finished Portland's Master Recycler Course and volunteered to manage the market's waste. She set up paired trash-and-recycling cans throughout the small gravel lot. At the end of each market, she looked in the bins to see if the signage on top of the lids worked. It did: she was successfully capturing the usual recyclables generated at public events: plastic bottles and aluminum cans. The trash was full of clamshells and plastic cups, but there was nothing she could do about that, right? Keep reading.

The second year, Kristin helped volunteer at the Bite of Oregon, where Lindsey Newkirk of Elysium Events led the charge to get thousands of plastic cups recycled. Kristin recalls an epic morning at Waterfront Park, dipping cup after cup into 5-gallon buckets of cold water. Once rinsed and stacked, they were able to give the cups to a plastics recycler. That experience inspired Kristin to look at Montavilla Farmers Market's waste stream with a more critical eye. She says, "I had thought that volunteers wouldn't like rinsing cups because it was too messy and took too much time. Through this process, I realized that there's only a barrier if I think there is." She could get cups out of the waste stream! Perhaps she could get more.

Building on her experiences, in 2008, Kristin built "over the barrel" signs out of PVC piping that point directly down to the trash and recycling cans. She reduced trash and recycling bins to one centralized station. After many tries, she realized that people like simple signage. At this point, she had three waste stream categories: 1) bottles & cans, 2) clear cups (she was rinsing and recycling about 100 cups a week), and 3) landfill.

In 2009, the third season, Kristin had high expectations. In looking at the garbage, she realized that about 95 percent of the waste generated was disposable serviceware. She asked the knowledgeable folks at Community Environmental Services for help and they gave her some tips on signage and waste stream evaluation. She went around to each and every vendor and asked them for an example of every piece of waste that might end up in the trash. She then labeled them and spread them out on her porch, trying to see patterns in products. She did some research and realized that every paper item (napkins, boats, plates, straw wrappers, parchment paper from the bakery items, Ecotainer hot cups, and tamale wrappers) was compostable. The lemonade vendor had also just switched to compostable cups. She did a waste audit and verified that the market generated about two full 45-gallon containers of compostables each week. She presented her findings to the MFM board, and they agreed to fund the additional costs associated with organic diversion: in this case $25/month for an additional hauling cost, plus ~$75 in compostable bags. Organic diversion: check.

Kristin says, "It made me feel good that there was so little landfill waste," Kristin says, "but there were still all the plastic clamshells, plastic forks, and plastic cups." She continued, "It's one thing to rinse and stack plastic cups. It's quite another thing to get plastic forks and greasy clamshells clean...with a bucket of cold water. It's also time consuming." She described the process: "The first week, I was enthusiastic. The second week, it [cleaning greasy clamshells] was gross. The third week, I thought, 'This is ridiculous! There has to be a better way.'"

She considered compostable serviceware (sometimes called "bioplastics"), but had concerns. Could the market's small businesses afford the extra costs? Would the bioplastics increase contamination? (They look like plastic, but they are not.) How would they be processed? (They have to go to a commercial composting facility.) Are they good for the soil? (Sure, they "break down", but they add no nutrient value to compost.) Umbra, on Grist, writes about corn plastic here. Deciding to skip bioplastics, Kristin applied for a grant for durable dishware.

She was awarded a Portland Recycles! grant designed to reduce waste. A few other businesses received grants for durable dishware, but MFM was the first outdoor farmers market in Portland (that I know of) to invest in reusable dishware.

In August 2009, armed with real 9" plates, metal forks, and hard-plastic cups, the waste stream has shifted dramatically. In an outdoor market with about 35 vendors and 1400 customers each Sunday, Kristin reports her findings of the waste composition:
  • PLASTIC FORKS: Before durables, 118. After durables, 10.
  • PLASTIC DRINK CUPS: Before durables, 30. After durables, 7.
  • PLASTIC CLAMSHELLS: Before plates, lots. After plates, none.

I applaud
Montavilla Farmers Market for skipping the compostable serviceware step and going straight to durables. Kristin is leading the charge, gathering information, and gleaning insights that will help others "take the plunge."

2 comments:

Fake Plastic Fish said...

Amazing! Truly amazing. I thought we were progressive here in the Bay Area with so many farmers markets going plastic-free. You all have us beat by a mile.

I write the blog, Fake Plastic Fish, by the way, which is all about finding more ways to reduce our plastic consumption and plastic waste. I found your blog through a Google search for an article I am writing on the BlogHer site about plastic-free farmers markets. I will certainly link to your article! Check BlogHer.com later today to see the piece.

Beth

Rainy Daisy said...

This is fantastic! How exciting! I have a habit of carrying camping silverware with me so that I don't have to go searching for nasty plastic forks and spoons, but this is even better. I think people really underestimate - have perhaps forgotten about - how satisfying it is to eat with real tableware. There are theories that so much disposable stuff leads us to think of our food as less important, less worthy of real attention, thus leading to obesity. Perhaps if we value our tableware, we'll start valuing the food on the plate...start valuing where the food goes and comes from?

Perhaps a long shot, but I think it's an important step in any case, for more reasons than one!

Cheers!
Daisy