Zero Waste Boise Institute Grocery Tours Teach Shoppers to Reduce their Waste 

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Lex Nelson

In the lead-up to Earth Day on April 20 and 21, Zero Waste Boise Institute Founder Jillien Eijckelhof and a small team of volunteers camped out at both locations of the Boise Co-op. Their goal wasn't to inspect shoppers' carts for excess plastics—instead, they offered aisle-by-aisle tours of the Co-op to customers, walking them through Boise and Meridian's complex recycling programs, and giving tips on how to reduce waste with every grocery run.

"It occurred to us that this is not just a place for a zero-waste tour, it is the place for a zero-waste tour," Eijckelhof said from behind a green-swathed table covered with informational posters. "...Thirty percent of all waste in this country is containers and packaging, and two-thirds of that is from grocery shopping."

click to enlarge Patty Costello (left) and Jillien Eijckelhof (right) set up shop at Boise Co-op April 21. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Patty Costello (left) and Jillien Eijckelhof (right) set up shop at Boise Co-op April 21.
The 1:30 p.m. tour on Sunday at the North End Co-op started outside of the store with a stop at the RecyclePak drop-off container, where shoppers can leave milk cartons, Chinese takeout containers, soup boxes and more that can't be recycled in Boise. From there, they're shipped to Altogether Recycling in Denver, Colorado.

Patty Costello, a ZWBI volunteer and member of the City of Boise's Curb It Pro program, was excited to show off the service to her small tour group of two. One of the shoppers, Stefan Schachtell, who said he was trying to reduce his waste "just to be a human being, a good citizen, take care of my environment [and] be a good example to my grandkids" had never noticed the RecyclePak stop before, but said he couldn't wait to start using it.

"We're not this crazy niche thing any more," Costello said of self-described zero-wasters. "People are starting to think about it."

click to enlarge Costello (left) and Stefan Schachtell (right) examine the RecyclePak drop-off bin. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Costello (left) and Stefan Schachtell (right) examine the RecyclePak drop-off bin.
As the group moved from aisle to aisle, starting in the deli and prepared foods section and working its way through bulk items, the freezer section, dairy, the wellness area and beyond, Costello's tips ranged from fairly obvious to nuanced. Beginner pointers included shopping for food, shampoo, soap and more in bulk as much as possible using containers from home (the Co-op will tare, or weigh, outside vessels for shoppers at the Customer Service desk before they buy), avoiding products with excess packaging, and checking the number on plastics before buying to make sure they're recyclable (find the City of Boise's recycling guide for both blue bins and orange Hefty EnergyBags here).

click to enlarge A Co-op employee tares containers at a register. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • A Co-op employee tares containers at a register.
For the truly dedicated, Costello mentioned next steps like separating mixed-material containers into their component parts for recycling (though some, like bread bags with windows, can be recycled whole in the blue bin), tucking in the lids on aluminum cans without fully separating them (separated lids can be confused for paper by recycling machines, and should be thrown away), and using a complex work-around to avoid excess packaging at the deli, where passing home-brought containers behind the counter is a health code violation.

"You can ask for it 'for here' and they'll put it on a plate. Then you can walk yourself over to the dining area and put it in your own container," she said.

Costello also pointed out that Co-op has already taken dozens of initiatives to make reducing waste easier, from offering for-here coffee mugs to creating a deposit program for its glass jars of soups and sauces. Buyers can put down a dollar for collateral when they buy their groceries, then get it back when they return the jars. The store also offers paper produce bags, and reduces its own food waste by donating unsold grab-and-go deli items to Corpus Christi House.

click to enlarge At the Co-op, bulk shopping extends beyond the food aisles. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • At the Co-op, bulk shopping extends beyond the food aisles.
As the tour wrapped up, Costello told her group that she understood recycling and waste in general could feel like an overwhelming issue, particularly with the complexity of sorting things for blue bins, orange bags, RecyclePak and other services.

"My cousin's like, 'How much stuff do you have in your closet that you're constantly squirling away?'" she said.

Schachell chimed in, saying the scope of the problem has sometimes dispirited him and his wife.

"After a while it becomes a pain and we're like 'Eh, let's throw it away,'" he said.

Still, both he and Costello emphasized that their efforts feel worth it, despite those setbacks.

"If you can make it easier for the consumer, then we'll get more participation," Schachtell said.

If you're interested in reducing your waste don't know whether something is recyclable or where to put it, ZWBI and the City of Boise Department of Public Works are both excellent resources, and ZWBI has a complete zero-waste shopping guide in the works. Keep an eye on its website for updates. 
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