Instructions for Sorting Waste at Whole Foods

Um, I’m confused. Photo by confused author.

Thank you for eating at Whole Foods. After bussing your table, please help reduce the amount of material that ends up in landfills by sorting garbage into our six separate bins, and by garbage we don’t mean trash. Trash has its own bin. We mean waste, aka, disposable, single-use, post-meal material. This includes:

* original product packaging

* hot food and salad bar takeout containers

* napkins

* waxed paper water cups

* foil and utensils.

* And reusable dishes. We wash them in back. Also, cans, both recyclable and non. Unfortunately, our soy and nut milk Tetra Paks®​ are not recyclable, though their contents are compostable, but rather than being lazy and pouring plant-based beverages into the dry “Compost” bin, we ask that you use the “Drain.” Same basic idea with takeout containers, sort of: contents go in one bin, container goes in another, though only if containers are clean, in which case ignore the signs and put them in the bin marked “Curbside Comingle Recycling.” If they’re dirty, put them in “Landfill.” In other words, if you used the containers as intendedby putting food in them to “takeout” and eat here at the market (ie, to takeaway, as the British say, from the self-serve station, and take to the dining area where you are currently)then you’ll need to clean them before you recycle them, by which we mean wiping them with a napkin, removing food bits, or cleansing with your preferred method. We’re not the trash police. We’re only trying to reduce our fingerprint. Otherwise, stuff goes in the landfill, and we’re all trying to avoid that.

It sounds worse than it is. Just follow these simple instructions and please come again:

* Glass Recycling: colored and clear glass, bottles and jars (NO food or liquid, NO wrappers, NO plastic bags, NO lids or caps)

* Curbside Comingle Recycling: paper, plastic bottles and tubs, aluminum and tin cans (NO food or liquid, NO wrappers, NO plastic bags, NO lids or caps)

* Compost: ALL food waste/scraps, paper sample cups, paper towels and napkins. (“NO glass, NO plastic, NO metal, NO wrappers)

* Landfill: to-go boxes, soup cups, gloves, potato chip bags, protein bar wrappers (NO glass, NO plastic, NO metal)

* As the signs state, the contents of both “Curbside Comingle” and “Glass Recycling” “MUST BE CLEAN WITH NO FOOD RESIDUE!”

For our own edification, we want to share a scene one of our staff recently witnessed. A young man in a blue down vest stepped to the bins and checked to see if the material in his hands matched the material depicted in the signs. “You need a PhD in trash,” he said to no one in particular.

Beside him, a redhead in purple fleece studied her options. “Does this go in there, or in here?”

“Here,” the man said. “No, there. Wait, is that this cup or that cup?” They stared at the signs.

“I drank all the coffee, but is that not clean enough?” Her brow furrowed. “’Landfill’ says no plastic, but ‘Comingle’ says no lids. Fuck it,” she said and tossed everything in “Landfill,” aka, trash.

We apologize for any confusion. As a recent customer comment card advised, “If you’re trying to save the environment, maybe you could help decode this shit?” Another card read: “Which hole do I dump your directions in? They suck.”

No need to send more cards. We’ve refined the system according to your input. Yes, this is our redesign. We did our best. Now we ask that you do yours by following these instructions:

Coffee cups are recyclable. Lids are not. Although the lids bear the tiny triangle icon that designates recyclable material, that changes once the lids are used, even if you clean them. It’s a weird policy. Complain to the city. If you never put the lid on your cup, though, and only touched it, then you can recycle it. Or you can put it back on the stack of lids at the self-serve station, but some people think that’s gross, so if you do it, just don’t let anyone see. (That’s what Lisa in Grocery does with fruit that falls on the floor.) By the way, this only counts for black lids. The brown ones go in “Landfill.” We’re sorry. They’re better insulators than the semi-recyclable lids, so we buy them despite their carbon cost, because plastic usually works better, right? So: brown versus black. Look for it.

Jared the cashier recently watched a young man say, “Eeny meeny miny moe” before slam-dunking his cardboard box into the wrong bin. When he spotted Jared, he sipped a can of yerba mate and muttered, “Still some left, but it goes in here.”

Sure, sometimes you get it wrong, but the beauty is you’re trying. You study the fine print and want to do what’s right. Is that the bin for cellophane made from corn? Yes it is. Maybe. Look closer. Actually, maybe not. Keep trying.

To Our Valued Customers: we know you’ve been standing at the bins for five minutes, rereading the directions so you can make an ethical deposit, but complaining that that’s “almost one minute of my life wasted for every friggin’ bin” isn’t going to expedite the process, is it? Why put you through this? To prevent more American soil from being converted to dumps, that’s why. We thought you shopped here because you cared.

Listen, we understand that, in the words of one comment card, “a system designed to reduce waste sure seems happy wasting my time,” but environmental issues are complex. Did it occur to you that the burden falls on human beings because there are far more of you than there are endangered Tipton Kangaroo Rats or clean wild rivers? Anyway, between your smart phones and TV habits and the way you stare vacantly at the ground at the bus station, we don’t see you protecting your precious time. Maybe if you valued it more, we would, too. Until then, remember that you’re the ones creating this mess. Maybe you deserve to be punished. Now follow these easy steps to keep your crap out of landfills:

* Look for stains. If your to-go box is soiled, check the type: peanut sauce or Green Goddess dressing? Parsley or grease?

* Next, check location: does the stain reside on the lid or outside the box? If outside, where exactly? Please read the signs and dispose accordingly.

No, that isn’t “hairsplitting.” It’s good stewardship. Precise steps must be taken, and accuracy requires your dedication and problem-solving ability. But hey, maybe your girlfriend’s right. Maybe you don’t care. If you did, then wouldn’t you show it by following these additional steps?

Compostable utensils now go in their own “Recycle Plastic Utensils Here” bin, not the old one labeled “Compost.” (Update: As of Monday the 1st, dirty knives will no longer comingle with the dirty spoons or forks.) Just remember that staff has to sort through bins to fix mistakes. Specifically, that staff’s name is John, though we call him Big John due to the big cuts on his hands from SORTING ALL YOUR MISPLACED TRASH.

Since you started reading this, we’ve expanded service. No longer limited to six bins, we now offer sixteen. Place uneaten broccoli and cauliflower in the bin marked “Cruciferous.” Carefully segregate your legumes into “Nitrogen-Fixing.” From there, anything containing nuts can go into “Nuts.” (This includes nut-free items manufactured in a facility that processes nuts.) “Spicy” compost goes in a different bin than “Regular Spice.” Glutinous goes in one, and gluten-free in another. Except corn. Dump that in “Landfill.” It’s mostly GMO.

Soy and dairy have their own containers, though we all kind of hate soy and want to get rid of it, so do whatever you want.

Our Kosher customers can separate milk compost from meat compost. Due to longstanding cultural and political tensions far too complex to grasp, customers are welcome to place Chinese food and Chinese products in separate containers than the Japanese and South Korean waste, though we personally encourage comingling. Same goes for Israeli-made gluten-free items. Just because war continues to rage between Israelis and Palestinians does not mean it should rage in our dining area. While we acknowledge the sensitivity of the issues and respect your positions, we cannot offer a conflict resolution that will satisfy all parties, except to ask whether it’s really too much for people to simply throw all Israeli waste in with the other vaguely Middle Eastern waste? Can’t you at least make a symbolic concession? One bin. It’s just one bin. And it’s a bin nobody wanted in the first place. We’re trying to save our planet and our species here, people. Let’s learn to mix things together better, unless it’s clean glass and dirty plastic, then segregate that shit.

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.

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