Livermore Costco does composting like it does everything else — big – Inside Bay Area

LIVERMORE — Workers at Costco Wholesale in Livermore wanted the size of their statement to equal the size of their efforts.

So when the popular megastore’s 12-inch-by-12-inch green business certification arrived in the mail in June, warehouse manager Melissa McCurdy did what any proud boss with access to industrial-sized printing equipment would do — she blew it up. 

A 9-foot tall billboard lauding Costco’s environmental values now dangles from the ceiling over the main aisle for all to see. It’s big, but if its proportions were true to life it would be even bigger — 55 tons to be exact.  That’s how much garbage officials estimate is being diverted each month under the store’s four-month-old waste reduction program, the largest ever implemented in the Costco chain.

The 156,000-square-foot Livermore warehouse on Independence Drive is the first and only one of the company’s 500-plus warehouses worldwide to cut its landfill contribution by 80 percent, an accomplishment that helped it win certification from the Alameda County Green Business Program in June.

Store waste that once wound up at local dumps now is being broken down at worm farms, then sold or given away to farmers. The goal is to eventually stock that compost mix in the Livermore Costco — in essence "sell our own garbage," McCurdy said.  "I am still shocked that we did it," she added happily. 

Diverting a big box store’s organic waste to compost heaps may sound like a no-brainer, but the process is not easy.  "It is difficult to get to those levels of diversion for any kind of commercial site," said Rachel Balsley, program manager for StopWaste.Org.  The public agency, which provides waste reduction assistance to mid-sized and large businesses in Alameda County, recently awarded Livermore Costco a $5,000 grant to aid its efforts.  The store has gone "above and beyond showing leadership" in trash diversion, said Balsley, calling it a "model for other businesses."

Admittedly, Livermore Costco’s green revolution was less about saving the environment at first than it was about kicking a competitor "in the you-know-what," McCurdy said.  After a San Diego Costco launched a small composting program, McCurdy’s regional supervisor asked her to one-up managers in Southern California by starting a program here.  McCurdy said she groaned initially, ruing the extra work — that is until she "toured the trash."  "It’s not something you typically do: go in your trash and actually look at it. I couldn’t believe the amount of compostable materials that we were throwing in landfills," she said.

A walk around the refuse revealed that nearly 75 percent of the store’s 65 tons of monthly garbage was compostable, food-related waste. While a small percentage of bottles, cans and other items were being recycled, most of the rubbish was ending up in landfills.  Aided by waste specialists from UC Berkeley, meetings were held to train Costco employees.  Compostables, they learned, include everything from old office furniture to leftover cheese samples to pizza-stained paper plates and toothpicks from the food court.

"Our employees were key," said McCurdy, recalling how staff members embraced the program.  Twenty-five managers and 240 rank-and-file employees work at the store, which serves nearly 30,000 customers a week.  Workers traded in the disposable utensils they’d been using during lunch breaks for washable mess kits.  Meanwhile, three different bins — one for compostables, one for recyclables and one for everything else — were set up in the food court for customers.

These days, about 10 tons of garbage per month finds its way into the "everything else" bin, store officials said.  "The only things that aren’t biodegradable or recyclable in the food court are the straws, the hot dog wrappers and the grated cheese and crushed pepper packets," said McCurdy, adding, "We’re working out relationships now with the buying team to get a lower cost on biodegradable utensils."

McCurdy, who has since been transferred to the El Camino Costco in South San Francisco, said she plans to help implement the program there.  She said she would love to see other major retailers embrace it as well.  "If we can do it, I don’t see why the next guy can’t do it," said McCurdy.

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