Transforming trash: GreenTown co-op provides alternative to Styrofoam

Photo Peg Champion/Special To The Town Crier Los Altos High School freshmen, from left, Laurel O'Such, Carly Cohen and Daniel Rosenbaum place the new compostable trays and food waste into the correct collection bin.

Local restaurants and schools have joined forces with GreenTown Los Altos to eliminate Styrofoam and nonrecyclable plastics used in food service. A buyers’ cooperative aims to reduce landfill waste by replacing petroleum-based products with compostable materials.

GreenTown Los Altos, a non-profit grassroots group that promotes sustainability, formed the business co-op in 2010 to provide restaurants with compostable takeout containers and food-service utensils from Palo Alto-based World Centric at a price 25 percent below what they would pay on their own.

The program became more compelling in March 2010, when the Los Altos City Council awarded the new waste contract to Mission Trail Waste Systems, according to Mike Barnes, co-chairman of the co-op.

“A key element of that contract was the collection of organics,” he said.

Under the contract, Mission Trail collects and commercially composts yard and food waste, such as vegetable and meat scraps, food-soiled paper and compostable containers. The composting process produces beneficial soil fertilizer and reduces methane, a potent greenhouse gas created when organic matter is sent to the landfill. After a 2008 GreenTown Los Altos solid-waste study discovered that 40 percent of Los Altos’ landfill waste was organics, the group urged the city council to include organics collection and composting in the new waste-service contract.

As many as 21 tons of trash have been diverted from the landfill over the past year as a result of the co-op, GreenTown reports.

“The goal of our program is to reduce waste by eliminating Styrofoam and those plastics not typically recycled from the landfill,” said co-chairwoman Mary Clark Bartlett, owner of Epicurean Group, a founding co-op member.

Bartlett’s sustainable food-service company, headquartered in Los Altos, provides healthful food to schools and businesses throughout the Bay Area, including Pinewood School, St. Francis High School and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Barnes said Epicurean Group’s participation allowed for the discount that co-op members enjoy. The discount lowers the cost of the compostable materials to the same price range as noncompostable products.

“The large volume they purchase from the co-op earns all the other, smaller members the same discounted rate,” he said.

Co-op members in Los Altos include Brian’s Restaurant, Chef Chu’s, Sumika and Tom’s Depot. Membership is free and open to all Bay Area businesses.


Schools pitch in

Local schools are making the switch, too. GreenTown Los Altos underwrites a program at Los Altos High School to replace polystyrene lunch trays with compostable models.

After hearing a presentation from Barnes last spring, the high school’s Green Team raised funds for a pilot project. Students voted to continue the program this school year and GreenTown stepped in to provide funding. Program coordinators estimate that the program, launched this week, will eliminate more than 3,400 foam trays from the landfill this school year. Mountain View High School is considering a similar program.

Expanded polystyrene foam – Styrofoam – contains styrene and benzene, compounds that are suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins. According to Save the Bay, an environmental organization that tracks marine debris, Styrofoam is the second most abundant beach debris in California. A bill to ban the use of polystyrene foam products in California, SB 568, passed in the state senate this year. Proponents expect a similar bill to be introduced during the 2012 legislative session.

More than 50 cities and counties in California have banned foam food containers.

“We think it’s a matter of time before polystyrene foam is banned,” Barnes said. “Our co-op is helping businesses make a cost-effective transition to healthy, sustainable materials.”

For more information or to join the GreenTown co-op, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit or GreenTown Los Altos on Facebook.

Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and principal at Champion Organic Communications. Her work focuses on communication and education strategies to encourage sustainable behavior. For more information, visit

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