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Taco Time Northwest: Planning (and Partnering) for Compostability
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Taco Time Northwest: Planning (and Partnering) for Compostability

It was 2010, in the depths of the last recession, when the news came out that the City of Seattle would be requiring that all food waste in restaurants be composted, and all packaging served in restaurants be either composted or recycled. Sales were down, costs were up, and the bottom line as squeezed as it has ever been.

As a local, Pacific Northwest company, established in 1962, Taco Time Northwest has always been concerned about the environment. That said, we were not in a place as a company to welcome this news. Instead, we were confronted with a host of unknowns:

· Would our current suppliers be able to provide us with compostable or recyclable alternatives for all of our packaging?

· Would the compostable/recyclable alternatives perform as well as what we were currently using?

· Would there be training involved for our employees? If so, were there materials available? Or would we have to develop them ourselves? How much would any training and materials development cost?

· What sorting system would we use?

· When we borrow or transfer employees into Seattle locations, what would the ongoing re-training costs be?

· Assuming it would be a 3-bin system, where would we source the containers? How much would they cost?

· Was there any signage for our customers to help them sort waste correctly? Or would we have to create our own?

· Would customers from outside the City struggle in an ongoing way to figure out our system?

· How much would it cost to haul away a 3rd stream of waste?

· Would we be able to fit a 3rd container in our waste enclosures? Or would a dumpster have to sit out in plan view in our beautifully landscaped properties?

· Who would the compost hauler be? Would there be competition to keep the cost down?

· Would our packaging be recyclable or compostable at home or at the office for our customers? Or would it all end up in the landfill?

· What would the overall impact to the bottom line be?

· Would we really have to do all this? Couldn’t we just wait it out??

· Are these people nuts? Don’t they know there is a recession going on??

It turns out they did know there was a recession going on, and they weren’t nuts. Seattle Public Utilities reached out to us early on, inviting us into the stakeholder process, always ready to answer questions, ready to be a partner in the process. But they were also the first to admit that they didn’t have all the answers, and that our initial experiences and learnings would be key in moving things forward.

One of the first lessons we learned is that partnerships are critical to making a successful switch to renewables. For every question listed above, a dozen more surfaced during the process. Without the partnership of Pat Kaufman and Dick Lilly (and, later, Sego Jackson) of Seattle Public Utilities, we would have been overwhelmed right at the start.

In addition, our ongoing partnership with Cedar Grove Compost (a soup-to-nuts operation that handles everything from maintaining the list of what packaging will compost in their system, hauling compostable feedstocks, processing feedstocks into compost, and then selling/distributing finished compost itself) has been and continues to be critical to the continued improvement and evolution of our waste diversion system.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel yourself! The resources are out there, the expertise has been developed, the hard work has been done. While there will almost certainly be challenges for your individual situation that will require some engagement and creativity and commitment, the way forward is actually pretty simple, as you will see.

But back to 2010, and our initial waste diversion system test. Here were the initial steps we took:

· Contacted our packaging supplier.

· Had them work with Seattle Public Utilities and Cedar Grove Composting to identify which of our current items were already recyclable or compostable.

· Asked to see as many Cedar Grove-approved compostable options as possible for each of our existing packaging items.

· Reviewed alternatives (along with pricing), R&D tested most promising generic options for performance.

· Once options were decided upon, photographic signage was developed, with a clockwise, top-to-bottom, most to least volume layout, to make reading the signage as quick and easy as possible for most customers.

· Three bin system sourced with the help of Seattle Public Utilities:

· Restaurant location in Lower Queen Anne neighborhood identified as test site.

· The General Manager of the location, a long-time internal advocate for green initiatives, super excited to test the system.

· Compost account opened with Cedar Grove, compost dumpster delivered.

· Garbage receptacles removed from the dining room, three bin systems installed, signage posted, crew and manager training completed, and the test began.

Results:

· 9 out of every 10 bags of compost and recycling noticeably contaminated.

· We learned early on that it just takes one person in a hurry to ruin an entire bag of renewable waste.

· We tried editing the signage.

· Providing explanatory tray liners.

· Posting explanatory table tents at every table.

· Stationing an employee at the 3-bin system to answer questions and sort waste if needed. (This turned out to be unsustainable, both staffing-wise and labor cost-wise.)

None of that mattered.

Composters and recyclers both have a vested interest in getting clean feedstocks for their end-product, so both told us that if the bags were noticeably contaminated, to throw the bag in the trash dumpster. This meant we were paying the compost hauler to come every week to empty a 1/4 full (or less!) compost dumpster.

After 3 months of this, we met to discuss the situation and plans for moving forward. The problem seemed to be sorting. It was clearly too easy for our customers to make a mistake, but there didn’t appear to be any other option.

Again, Taco Time Northwest is a local, Pacific Northwest company. Our customers are our family, friends, neighbors. We breathe the same air and drink the same water. We really do care about the environment. In that context, the question was asked: Is there a way we could embrace this regulation? A way we could really put our money where our mouth is, really show that we actually care about these issues?

Knowing food waste would always be part of the waste stream in the dining room, we knew we would always need a compost bin. But what about recycling and trash? What if there was no sorting needed? Was that even possible? What if everything on the tray was compostable? Could we go down to a single bin? If we could, this would eliminate the sorting issue. But how much would going 100% compostable cost??

Turns out it was going to be significantly more expensive than what we were paying at that point. But since sorting wasn’t working, and since we agreed we owed it to ourselves and our customers to try it, we tested going 100% compostable. We sourced a compostable option for all of our packaging, removed the 3 bin system (and those wonderful signs that we spent so much time and effort and thought and creativity and good will on), put the big garbage receptacles back, renamed them compost bins, placed a small garbage on top of the big bins (for single-use milk bottles, juice boxes and mint wrappers, and for any incidental trash customers might have) and started version 2.0 of the waste diversion test.

The results? World Peace!

· No sorting required for customers = Contamination issues eliminated immediately.

· No training needed for the crew = Cost savings on labor.

· Clean compost filling compost dumpster every week = reduced garbage and recycle service, so waste hauling costs improved.

But the single most important result: Immediate, massive, passionate outpouring of support from our customers. In person, over the phone to our corporate office, online. It was so gratifying.

After a few weeks of this, we knew that the test was successful. The single bin system would need to be the system for all of our Seattle locations.

That said, the feedback was SO positive, and SO sustained, we had to ask ourselves, what if we did this in all of our restaurants? What would that cost?

A lot, it turns out, especially for the 30% of our locations that were not in range of a compost hauler at the time (we are now well past 80% and climbing), which meant the compostable packaging would end up in a landfill anyway. Still, we found that if we went system-wide, economies of scale would begin to work in our favor. Instead of having to use generic compostable packaging (which is what we used in our tests as the least expensive option), we could get it custom printed with our logo and marketing messages. Also, the cost overall would be less.

We decided then that composting would become a key part of our brand identity. True, it was still the recession. But if there is one thing we learned in this process about our customers, it is that they really really really care about this issue, and are willing to reward businesses like ours whose values and ethos aligns with their own. We had to try it.

The simplicity of the system, customer goodwill, and sales increases soon sold the value of making the change to compostable packaging to even the biggest internal doubters.

We have continued to evolve our packaging since we went compostable system-wide in 2011, eliminating non-compostables as compostable options became available. In 2018, we were able to eliminate the last non-compostable packaging item. So for the past year, 100% of any packaging that reaches our customers, whether served in the restaurant or in drive-thru, is compostable.

Since 2011, the cost of many compostable alternatives has come way down. It is now easier than ever to make the change to compostable packaging. It still costs more, for sure. For some items, significantly more. But it seems to us that going 100% compostable, along with our focus on local sourcing of ingredients, opening every new location with a solar array, and other green initiatives, is the only way forward that is sustainable for our business and in line with our ethos.

All good things to you, and happy composting!

Wes Benson is Franchise Affairs and Sustainability Manager for Taco Time Northwest, operating out of Renton, WA. The organic material Taco Time rescues from the landfill created over 37,000 bags of compost in 2017 or over 37 truckloads.