In the summer of 2016, Sweetgreen executive Kevin Quandt received a confidential notice about something rotten that was happening inside his company's restaurants. Or, to be more precise, about something rotten that was coming out of them: garbage.
As vice president of the supply and sustainability chain, Quandt was in charge of sourcing the ingredients that were used in salads and grain bowls of the informal Santa Monica chain, as well as in their takeaway containers, disposable cutlery and cups . He was also in charge of what happened to all the waste collected at 80 Sweetgreen locations, most of which consisted of food, paper and bioplastic compostable remains.
Since 2010, store signs have assured diners that "Nothing inside Sweetgreen goes to the landfill." But for most of the time since then, that has not been entirely true. In many of the company's largest markets, municipal composting was and is non-existent. Even where it was available, composters often refused to manipulate bioplastics, forcing the company to find its own solutions, sometimes of dubious efficacy.
In New York City, the company employed a broker to collect organic waste from seven restaurants and transport them to a facility in the north of the state. Then an industry friend put an error in Quandt's ear: are you sure this guy is really taking your compost to where he says he is? Quandt passed the tip beyond another reliable contact, who agreed that the seller was not reliable.
It was the kind of red flag that Quandt had encountered more and more as he did Sisyphean's task of auditing the company's waste operations, a project he had begun shortly after joining Sweetgreen since the launch. of Blue Apron in the food kit. 2016. Quandt dialed the runner's number, who freely admitted that he had been dumping Sweetgreen's green waste in the dumps.
"So we work to eliminate them," Quandt says. "Sometimes you think you have what you should be doing, but then you keep digging deeper and learn all kinds of things."
The same could be said of the millions of customers who pay between $ 10 and $ 15 per pop for Sweetgreen salads and grain bowls, telling themselves that money not only buys a healthy meal but is good for the world: the ingredients Organically grown and locally sourced, workers are treated fairly, the packaging is minimal and ecological, just a few weeks after returning to the ground. That has been the chain's premise since 2007, when co-founder Nicolas Jammet and two of his Georgetown University classmates, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru, opened their first location in Washington, DC. He now has more than 100, with plans to double that number over the next three years, and earned more than $ 300 million in revenue last year.
Backed by $ 478 million in venture capital, Sweetgreen has lately been experimenting with "ghost kitchens" and food products without a bowl, but always within certain parameters. In posters and publications on social networks, the brand promotes its corporate values of transparency, sustainability and animal welfare. "We are always looking for ways to get smarter information, make better decisions and help Sweetgreen and its customers to be a positive force in the world and in the food system," says the company on a page of its website titled "Our Food Ethos. ”Sweetgreen has drawn attention for its innovative human resources policies, such as providing five months of paid parental leave to all employees and a cash emergency fund for line workers.
But privately, its executives recognize how difficult it can be to fulfill their ideals, particularly when it comes to garbage. The fragmented nature of waste management systems, the shortage of bioplastic processing facilities and the numerous price and sustainability offsets have sometimes made it difficult for Sweetgreen to match its rhetoric, or even know when it was failing.
For approximately six months from the end of 2017, the company was caught in the use of non-certified compostable salad bowls after learning that the company that supplied them had added petrochemical products to its formulation. Sweetgreen solved that problem in 2018 by eliminating plastic salad bowls and adopting bowls made of molded cane fiber for all of its offers. But in 2019, the New Food Economy reported that molded fiber bowls tested positive for polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a potentially dangerous and non-biodegradable chemical compound. (Sweetgreen says he is working on a better permanent solution).
That promise that nothing inside Sweetgreen goes to the landfill? For most of the time, Sweetgreen has been promoting it, it was more an ambition than a guarantee. It was not until 2018 that Quandt identified the last restaurant that treated his compost as garbage, a store in Philadelphia whose owner refused to leave space for an additional garbage container in the basement, and discovered a solution, which required a messenger to arrive when storing daily for a delivery on the choreographed sidewalk. "We had to be really creative," says Quandt.
In a broader sense, it is still far from true, since most of the take-away food containers, by design, leave the premises, at which point they are very likely to end up in the trash. According to Cheryl Baldwin, vice president of Pure Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm, only about 5% of US households. UU. They have access to the collection of food waste on the sidewalk. And even where it exists, most composting facilities do not accept bioplastics, which are made from corn starch and other vegetable sugars.
"It has taken us a lot of work to get to where we are today," says Jammet, who has the title of concept director. "There is only a lot that is technically under his control."
Exercising more control over your waste streams is the goal of a first-of-its-kind pilot program that takes place at four Sweetgreen locations in Los Angeles. In November, the company introduced new dedicated containers for the collection of cups, cutlery and salad lids. The materials gathered in them are transported by trucks to a facility in Albany, Oregon, where they are cleaned, crushed, ground, melted and eventually transformed into new utensils, which Sweetgreen buys.
In the first six weeks of this pilot, the company captured materials equivalent to 7,400 cups or 15,000 forks. A particular piece of polylactic acid, or PLA, can go through this "closed circuit" process more than 10 times before its quality degrades, at which point it can be composted.
The pilot resulted from an unsolicited email that Quandt received at the end of 2018 from a company called EcNow Tech. Chris Vitello, a plastics engineer who worked for the HP ink cartridge division, founded EcNow in 2009 after growing concerns about "all the materials in my career that I would send to the landfill," he says.
During the first eight years, he focused on the manufacture of plant-based and recycled plastics. It only focused on the recycling of PLA, which must be processed separately from conventional petroleum-based plastics, in response to two factors: the reluctance of most commercial composters to accept bioplastics, which take much longer to decompose than do Food or the garden. It wastes and produces poorer compost, and the increase in the price of the PLA, which is scarce thanks to new regulations and its acceptance by industries eager to project a greener image.
"We realized that it is a shame to send those valuable raw materials to the compost or to the landfill," says Vitello. He started small, with a local organic bakery, then went to find a large customer who could help him test the concept at scale.
For Quandt, Vitello's reach came at an opportune moment. In August 2018, the City Council of Santa Monica passed a law that requires that all single-use restaurant materials be "marine degradable," a term that excludes petroleum-derived plastics and vegetables. The ban came into effect in July 2019. The application is based on complaints; At the end of November, the city had issued only four appointments.
A city spokeswoman says Sweetgreen's efforts to capture its plastic waste are "good news," but notes that it does not address the issue of items to take away. But the program could make the company a less tempting goal for the application. And even if not, Quandt says, "we think it's the right thing to do."
Plus, the price is correct. Sweetgreen buys EcNow Tech's recycled utensils at the same cost it paid from its previous supplier. If the pilot runs smoothly, the next step will be for EcNow Tech to build a satellite facility in the Los Angeles region so that it can process the materials collected there locally and skip the 2,000-mile round trip of high carbon consumption.
In the longer term, the hope is to gradually eliminate the PLA, paper and cane fiber that Sweetgreen now uses in its containers and utensils in favor of even greener materials that decompose more cleanly or do not require scarce resources. The company is studying the feasibility of replacing paper in its straws with algae, says Joshua Hu, supply chain manager in charge of packaging and innovation. Wood pulp is also promising, he says.
The hardest part may be finding a suitable replacement for cups. Sweetgreen eliminated plastic water bottles in 2017, but still uses PLA glasses for cold drinks, and Hu has not seen a potential non-plastic alternative.
Beyond corporate responsibility, sustainable packaging is a key selling point for the type of people who buy elegant salads. "Consumers care more and more about this today than ever," says Jammet. "Because it's something everyone touches, right?"
However, increasing consumer awareness creates its own set of problems, with more and more players trying to take advantage of the boom by blurring the distinctions between biodegradable, compostable and compostable certified. The last designation means that it has been tested by the Biodegradable Products Institute, or BPI, and will decompose in no more than 120 days in an industrial composting facility. "Biodegradable" simply means that it will decompose more than 100 years.
When the company realized that it was using salad bowls that were not fully compostable, Quandt says: "We were like a panic button, because it is not where we want to be." It was not until August 2018 that Sweetgreen had a solution, adopting new molded fiber bowls that had the added benefit of eliminating the need to mix bowls. Despite signs of nothing in the landfill, that was where each salad bowl was for months to avoid contaminating other fertilizers, according to Ryan Cooper, manager of the waste division and recycling leader of organic products at Rubicon Global, managing partner of Sweetgreen waste.
"There's a lot of green washing," says Jammet. "It's frustrating and it works."
But once those bowls and sporks with BPI certification enter the green container, it is out of sight, out of reach of the average consumer, and also of the average business. And the carriers know it. To ensure that Sweetgreen's waste contractors do not dump all compost into a landfill such as New York, Quandt had to individually audit the waste stream at each of the 80 chain locations. As lease contracts were renewed, it was able to insert clauses that required owners to provide trash bins of organic waste, a provision that often allowed Sweetgreen's neighbors to start composting as well. Just as important is to make sure that garbage containers are safe enough so that their content does not become adulterated with non-compostable garbage.
Now, when the company looks for locations for new stores, "garbage path" is one of the first factors it considers, says Quandt. "This is not just‘ put in a bin and we're done, "he says. "We are fighting many forces here."
It is a fight that never ends. Because of the "big black box of waste management services," as Quandt puts it, the only way to make sure the garbage ends where it is supposed to do so is to follow it from the origin to the destination, which means periodic inspections. of each restaurant.
Quandt wants there to be some type of third-party certification of waste brokers and carriers to take away the responsibility.
"At this point, we all have to accept his words, which is crazy," he says. "I just want to sleep at night knowing that, after all this work, the truck doesn't just go to the landfill."