From our April 30, 2018 media release on the Grain Train’s win.
Emmet Recyclers Honor Grain Train
Over 80% of Emmet County households recycle through the county’s system and recycling staff report constantly hearing from enthusiastic residents saying they, “recycle everything!” But even in a community of avid recyclers, the Grain Train Natural Foods Markets stand out for their deep recycling ethic. Saturday, April 28, the markets—which are cooperatively owned by roughly 2,800 area individuals and families—were honored with Emmet County Recycling’s 2018 Recycler of the Year Award.
The Grain Train’s Petoskey market’s recycling efforts are evident from the moment customers walk in the door: stacks of blue crates in the foyer are ready to receive reusable old-fashioned glass milk bottles from Shetler’s Dairy in Kalkaska. Just inside the store proper, reusable fabric produce bags made from recycled pop bottles are for sale above the fresh broccoli and beets. (Though even the produce bags off the rolls are made from recycled material.) Toilet paper and paper towel options are 100% recycled content and up to 90% post-consumer recycled.
At the self-serve food bar, waste reduction is encouraged by racks of plates, bowls, and flatware. For those who must use a carry-out container, boxes and cups are ones carefully selected for sustainability and purchased “in bulk” by the National Co-op Grocer’s Association–of which the Grain Train is one of 147 members. As an example, Chelsea Jarvis, Operations Manager, noted, “They just changed the source of the coffee cups because the ink used to print the new ones is more sustainable.” The association’s member cooperatives also share best practices and data, challenging each other to reduce waste and energy use.
While many stores and restaurants recycle from their behind-the-scenes operations, the Grain Train stands out for also offering recycling front-of-house, in other words, for its customers. This is difficult because thousands of customers can’t be trained on proper recycling in the way dozens of employees can be. Jarvis noted that putting actual pictures of the recyclable items customers use in the store on the bins has been key to getting the public recycling right. The front-of-house recycling even includes collecting food scraps, napkins and paper towels for composting.
The Grain Train was founded in Petoskey in 1971 and was reducing, reusing, and recycling long before Emmet County took over local recycling services in 1990 and began expanding them. From the get-go, the market offered bulk foods—which reduce waste by allowing customers to buy just what they need–and encouraged customers to buy them in reusable jars. According to Dale Scott, who worked at the Grain Train from 1983-1993, customers also brought in their extra paper grocery bags for the store to use and, “We never bought any bags in the 10 years I worked there.” Employees and community members frequently took food scraps from the store home to feed pigs and chickens or to compost.
Through the years, employees and farmers have continued to reclaim food scraps from the Grain Train to feed livestock or to recycle by composting. Putting food waste to the best possible use has been a particular focus recently. With nearly 340,000 customer visits in 2017 the numbers really added up: the stores donated 6,156 pounds of imperfect produce to the Manna Food Project and an even greater volume of packaged groceries; local farmers took roughly 72,800 pounds to feed their animals or compost; and, to help keep up with volume, the store recycled another 7,168 pounds of food scraps through Emmet County’s commercial composting service.
Behind the scenes, the stores recycle large amounts of film plastic and cardboard and support local suppliers’ reuse efforts, for example saving carrot bins for Country Gardens, trays for plants from Bear Creek Organics, and boxes for Providence Farm. “Waste reduction and recycling are what we do. It is how we conduct our business. We don’t see it as separate,” said Jarvis.
Kate Melby, the Communications Coordinator for Emmet County Recycling, presented the recycling award to the Grain Train at the cooperative’s annual General Membership Meeting, held at North Central Michigan College’s cafeteria. Surveying the dinner, Melby said, “You can see their recycling ethic right here: at a casual, off-site event, most organizations would use disposable plates, cups, and plastic flatware. The Grain Train went with THE best zero-waste option: real linens and dishes. Love it!”