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Finding the right place for waste

Coffee shop follows path to sustainability

In the world of composting and recycling, small steps add up. But it does require an extra step or two in the process.

For Magnolia Café owner Yvette Maijala, making her Carlton business more sustainable is worth the extra work. Three years ago, she reached out to Karola Dalen, resource and recycling coordinator for Carlton County Zoning and Environmental Services. Dalen and her staff conducted a waste assessment report to help Magnolia with sustainability and recycling. Many of the practices they suggested are still in place.

"I just wanted in general to reduce the amount of garbage we throw away," Maijala said. "And I grew up with composting; it was part of my life."

Dalen said her office would love to help more Carlton County restaurants and businesses become more sustainable by separating recycling and organic waste.

Restaurants in the Western Lake Sanitary Sewer District are actually required to separate organics and recycling, but not all of them do, Dalen said. Bins for food waste are available - at a fee - along with those for recycling. Still, Dalen said, even though they have to pay to get rid of the waste, businesses don't have to pay the 17-percent tax on recycling or organics that they pay on waste that goes into the landfill. Plus, they have the satisfaction of knowing they're making a difference, which can also be a selling point for today's more-aware customers.

"We don't have recycling police," Dalen said, adding that it's in the state statute and the Carlton County solid waste ordinance that entities such as schools and businesses have to at least separate recycling from solid waste. "Although people can certainly call me, I think it can be more effective if customers just let a business know that they would love to see them do a better job of recycling." Dalen has worked with local schools to implement similar greener practices.

Restaurants can also reduce organic waste is to donate day-old food, for example, to food banks such as Second Harvest in Duluth.

"Reusables" - like coffee mugs and metal utensils - are another way to increase sustainability. So is choosing disposable items that are made in a more sustainable manner, Dalen said. Buy paper products that are certified as sustainably sourced, for example. "They aren't compostable, but there is still an environmental benefit, because they require sustainable harvesting of forest products," she said. Choosing paper over plastic or foam is always better, she said.

Why do we want to keep food/organic waste out of landfills?

"We want to divert those things because they're 100-percent recyclable," Dalen said. "And because, when it goes into a landfill, it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has been a problem for landfills to manage."

Education is key

Dalen pointed out that recycling or composting correctly is critical. If there is garbage mixed in with recycling, it will end up in the landfill. The same goes for organic waste.

"If you don't know if something is recyclable, put it in the garbage," she said. "People 'wishcycle,' but that causes problems downstream. And businesses need to work with their solid waste provider to know what's acceptable for recycling and what's not, or it will all end up in the garbage."

"In the beginning, I thought if it said 'eco' on it, then it was recyclable," Maijala said. "You have to learn what's acceptable and not acceptable."

Being more sustainable means Maijala has to train her staff on recycling and proper food waste collection. In the beginning, it was a little challenging. Now it's part of what they do and who they are. Recently when they ran out of large compostable bags, Maijala said they had to throw food waste away for a few days. It made her staff cringe.

Over the past three years, Maijala and her staff have figured out the best way to maximize both sustainability and efficiency.

Because most of the food is made from scratch at the coffee shop, they compost all the kitchen scraps, placing them in a special bin instead of throwing what Dalen refers to as "organics" in the garbage. That includes coffee grounds, vegetable peels and other organic trimmings.

They don't ask customers to separate their waste, although they tried that for a while. "It was always such a mess and we didn't really have the space," Maijala said.

Maijala said she also had to make some hard choices, because compostable containers are more expensive. "I learned early that I can't control what happens to a cup when it leaves the shop," she said.

Dalen said there's no evidence that throwing a compostable cup in the garbage is an environmental bonus. A cup needs to make its way into a commercial composting operation like WLSSD offers in order to complete its life cycle.

Maijala said she started a "bring your own mug" club pre-pandemic, which also included water bottles. "Those are zero-waste practices," she said, "like bringing your own container to a deli, or a place you buy bulk food items."

The first summer of composting at Magnolia, they went from composting about 40 pounds a week to more than 60. Now they do even more. But multiply 60 pounds times 52 weeks, and that adds up to 3,120 pounds of food waste that didn't end up in a landfill.

"When places collect organics, even a few pounds a day, that adds up annually," Dalen said. "It makes a difference."