Deep in the underbelly of Georgetown’s sparkling, LEED-certified Safeway, beneath the special white roof that reduces the need for AC and the LED lighting and ozone-friendly refrigerants, spokesperson Craig Muckle leads the way to a concrete warehouse. He’s about to reveal the heart of the store’s composting efforts: the compost pile.
“This might be slightly underwhelming,” he warns.
Indeed, the compost pile of the District’s first LEED-certified grocery store cower in the corner of the loud, cavernous warehouse, taking up no more than a few square feet.
Composting is the buzzy environmental concept that has yet to blossom in grocery stores. Even at the eco-conscious Georgetown store, where public officials last week praised Safeway’s environmental efforts, only about 35 percent of all compostable waste actually makes it to a composter.
“It’s a bit of an education process for employees,” says Muckle. “You’re asking them to do something different than they’ve done for years.” Workers in the produce and floral departments have to parse compostables and make sure they aren’t contaminated. Safeway aspires to compost 50 percent of all compostable waste and to get all of its Eastern division stores composting by the end of June.
If Safeway’s composting program hasn’t quite set the environmental world ablaze, it doesn’t surprise professional composter Bruce Blessing, owner of Blessings Blends in Delaware, who says grocery stores have struggled to get it right. “It’s really difficult,” he says. “Although it’s a great concept, it’s hard.” Blessing says grocery compost waste tends to have a lot of paper and plastic that needs to be picked out, which his company won’t do. “Probably 50 percent of what they bring in is trash,” he says.
Blessing says composting is logistically tough for grocery stores too. “It’s being hauled off to some far site,” he says. “They’re burning more fuel than if they’d taken it directly to the landfill.” This could be true of Safeway’s Georgetown store, which sends compost materials by truck from the store to a distribution center in Prince George’s County before shipping them to a composting facility like Blessing’s. Arguably, the environmental impact of the truck travel negates the impact of the composting.
Still, Safeway gets points for trying. Right now local Giant stores do no composting, and Harris Teeter says “we’re looking into it." Blessing is also taking the wait-and-see approach, letting other composters deal with grocers' awkward first efforts until the process gets smoother. “We’re building our market share,” he says, “and then we’ll approach the grocery stores.”