Drawing a crowd of nearly 1,800 ecologically-minded farmers and ranchers from across America, Pacific Grove, CA hosted the 2016, three-day Eco Farm conference. With the health of our planet at stake, “regeneration” was theme. Tackling issues ranging from climate change to the obscene fact that 50% of the food grown in our country is thrown away, best practices for land and water restoration and food recovery programs were deliberated. Experts focused on innovations to change 60+ years of industrialized farming practices, to correct the course, and to move the needle forward.
Peak Plate has been working on a solution to the sad dichotomy that 50% of America’s food is sent to the landfills, while 1 out of every 7 Americans go hungry. One speaker at the conference stood out on this issue, a West Coast food distributer responsible for tons of product per year.
Founded in 1974, Veritable Vegetable is the nation’s oldest distributor of organic produce. The company is women-owned, and they employ a hundred and thirty-five employees, 65% of whom are women. Celine Schafer, Director of Learning and Professional Development, shared how they’ve managed to divert ninety-nine percent of their food waste away from landfills and into the hands of many:
“… it’s not just about delivering food, it’s about a sustainable food system, bringing your values to work and having values that work. Is your household or company successfully diverting forty, fifty or even up to ninety percent of waste production from landfills? How can you help adopt a zero waste culture?” she asked the crowd.
2007 and earlier, a three-yard dumpster of landfill waste was picked up 5 days a week. “That’s my house, I live in the East Bay of San Francisco and that’s my house on garbage collection day. That is my 32-gallon waste container for about a 1,400 square feet of waste resource; it’s pretty standard. Today, a 35-gallon container is picked up once a week from our 25,000 sq. foot warehouse. This continues to blow me away when I think about it.”
Celine explains the importance of thinking about the entire system, not just thinking about how to get rid of what ends up in the waste container. She believes in whole picture thinking:
“What do I bring into our facility? How do I use it best to have the least waste possible?”
That is the exploration that resulted in Veritable Vegetable upcycling 99% of their waste, instead of sending it to landfill.
Their tactics evolved over time, changing as the business changed. Sorting their waste from office to warehouse is a major factor.
“When we first started working on sorting, we had a green team—a select group of people trained and paid to ensure that our waste was sorted correctly. That evolved training everyone in the company, from the office to the warehouse, to efficiently dispose of waste. It’s part of everyone’s job.”
Next they reached out to other companies to solve a common problem for most wholesalers: broken pallets. Wooden pallets break often; pallets take a lot of room to store. For Veritable Vegetable, it took lots of exploring unusual solutions to finally come up with a solution that worked for them.
“We’ve used any number of strategies over the years. We repaired them ourselves for a while. Then we paid somebody else to pick them up and haul them away. Now we have an arrangement with our supplier. They pick them up, pay us a dollar a board, fix them, and then we buy them back.”
“We compost all our food that is edible and not sellable, and in the early days we even offered curbside pick-up of compost for our farmers. We’re very active in donations of unsold food to hunger relief organizations like the San Francisco- Marin Food Bank and Glide, and sometimes even to local zoos. So this guy is eating a nice organic fig. “
It’s a delicate dance. Veritable Vegetable does what they can to sell the produce they take title to. In the rare cases when they have surplus, or food that is edible not sellable, they have several programs in place to ensure this food is not wasted. First, there is a staff Worker Food Program where staff can “shop” in VV’s warehouse for fresh, organic produce. They also have a Gleaning Program where local community organizations are invited to come and glean produce. Each organization is assigned one day a week. After that, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank comes five days a week to see if there is any produce available for pickup. And beyond that, they have a staff person dedicated to making sure that edible organic food doesn’t end up in the compost bin if it is edible!
Trucks are a major part of food delivery services and a major environmental concern to Veritable Vegetable. To reduce emissions they now have a hybrid fleet of diesel and electric vehicles. They are forever concerned with the details, for example:
“We have 32 trucks traveling long distances. It takes 23 gallons of oil to create one tire of this size. If you can recap it, that’s using only four gallons. You can recap a tire four times and now we’ve extended the lifetime of that tire, while diverting more from the landfill and creating huge savings.”
“In addition, you can imagine the waste from the shrink-wrap around huge pallets of food right. We’ve piloted a reusable wrap, so our customers don’t have a waste problem to deal with. The wrap comes back to us and we use it again, and again. It’s stronger, more economical, easier for our staff to put on and provides better ventilation for food as well.”
Integrate zero waste into your culture
Celine also believes in finding partners in the community. Instead of throwing out our vinyl strips from outside cooler doors, Veritable Vegetable uses resources such as Craigslist and Freecylce to list such materials for other users. These other users have included teachers to innovative designers that have created room dividers, baskets, and placemats. One person used them on a greenhouse roof: “…one person’s trash, is another person’s treasure.”
Photo of roof: Recycled vinyl strips made into a greenhouse roof
“Everyone in your organization should be conscious and responsible for waste management,” says Celine. “Reducing the size of the garbage can and increasing the size of recycling cans visibly sets expectations. Integrate your values into the culture. We even provide charging stations for electric vehicles, bike racks to encourage carbon-neutral commutes, and offer incentives to reduce water consumption at home. We hope these (and other) efforts help set the standard and attract like-minded employees.”
Make it easy
“Color-coding sorting stations and waste containers help employees quickly identify where to dispose of waste.. Making containers available throughout the office adds efficiency to your workflow, as do little things like adding wheels to make it easy to move them as needed. “
Invest in training
Veritable Vegetable provides ongoing training for all employees in managing waste, including a field trip to Recology in San Francisco:
“We did a trip there this past summer, and the reaction from staff was amazing. Those who went felt that it should be mandatory training for all employees. Seeing your efforts in a larger context makes an impact. When you visit a trash site, the dust is flying and people are sorting. It’s very sobering….and then you realize it’s just the transfer station.”
Photo of Recology station: Employee field trip to Recology, a trash recycling plant in San Francisco
Being an advocate
Celine continues, “There are several opportunities to share knowledge with other companies and individuals. Being an advocate also gives you an opportunity to work with others and see how they innovate.”
“We are working to be over 99% waste free. We’re not at zero yet which means we are still being creative….that’s the path we’ll continue to stay on going forward.”
All images provided by Veritable Vegetable