The Nashville Farmers’ Market Helps Customers Recycle Food Waste


Farmer Mkt Recepticles6045Photo: Eric England

Your next visit to the Nashville Farmers’ Market on Rosa Parks Boulevard will include six new items. No, not necessarily farm-fresh peaches or asparagus, though those will likely be there too, depending on when you arrive. The market is introducing six custom-designed receptacles that allow customers to sort their trash.

The Nashville Farmers’ Market, which is owned and operated by the Metro government, is rolling out a new program this month to encourage market customers to separate their trash and compost their food waste with the motto, “Think before you toss.” The receptacles allow assortment into three categories: compost (food scraps, paper, and plant material); plastic and aluminum recycling; and landfill, with educational signage at eye level. The divided receptacles will be placed both indoors and outdoors. That means market-goers can sort and compost their waste from food purchased from one of the more than 20 shops and restaurants in the market house, or from the farmers and other vendors who sell in the covered farm sheds.

The program stems from a 2015 strategic planning initiative when the Nashville Farmers’ Market and its board committed to environmental sustainability and stewardship. They set the ambitious goal of having the market at zero waste by December 2020.

Since 2015, the market has improved its recycling rates and began composting waste from vendors (excess food scraps, unsaleable food and plants from farmers) and started working with organizations to rescue edible food that couldn’t be sold. As much as 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is thrown away, and about 20 percent of all waste in the country’s landfills is food. Research shows that reducing that food waste can reduce environmental and economic costs of trash, and also reduce the number of people facing hunger by redirecting edible food. Between April 2018 and April 2019, the market diverted 97,000 pounds of waste from going to the landfill, according to the market’s executive director, Tasha Kennard. 

The Society of St. Andrew, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and The Nashville Food Project all glean foods that can’t be sold but can be used for hunger relief. Other sustainability initiatives have included eliminating styrofoam take-out containers at the market.

But that work was going on behind the scenes. As part of overall efforts to make Nashville a zero-food-waste city, and to meet the market’s zero-waste goal by next year, the Nashville Farmers’ Market needed to have an easy way for customers to do what farmers and vendors were already doing.

“That is an exciting and forward-thinking goal,” says Linda Breggin, an environmental lawyer and project coordinator for the Nashville Food Waste Initiative. “This will be a nice model for other farmers markets across the country.”

Kennard looked at how food halls in other cities were educating their customers about recycling food waste and looking at the collection bins used to encourage proper separation of waste.

“It was not our first choice to have them custom built,” Kennard says. “I would have preferred to order them out of a catalog, but we needed something that would look good, and we do not have a lot of wall space for signage, so we also needed something that could be freestanding or against a wall and handle the large volume we have.” It took about six weeks for the custom-designed receptacles to be made. The market spent about $30,000 on the containers, as well as ongoing education materials and activities.

While there were short-term costs associated with educational efforts and new sorting containers, Kennard says the reduction of waste to the landfill will eventually reduce the market’s waste-removal costs.

The introduction of customer food-waste composting took longer than Kennard initially would have liked. But with the benefit of hindsight, she says the gradual rollout was a good step. Now market farmers and vendors are on board and can help educate their customers on the process and the benefits, such as the fact that compost goes back into the community as a nutrient in the soil. “If we had done both at the same time, it would have been a giant failure,” she says. “We have that buy-in now. Now we have all these extra ambassadors who understand it as a benefit to the community.”

An ongoing education program will continue through the summer. The Nashville Farmers’ Market has borrowed a guiding principle from Clay Ezell of the Compost Company: If it was once alive, it can be composted.

“That really helps some people,” says Kennard. “They think, if paper was once a tree, then I can compost this. Educational materials are being designed to appeal to both visual learners and those who prefer to read instructions.

“This is not a flash in the pan,” Kennard says. “This is not something where we do it for two weeks and forget about.” 

“The average person doesn’t think that much about waste,” Breggin adds. She hopes that having displays and receptacles at the farmers market will encourage customers to take an extra second to ask themselves about what they are throwing away. Perhaps, for example, they will decide to take leftovers home for a second meal.

About 60 percent of Nashville Farmers’ Market visitors are area residents, and 40 percent are tourists, and everyone comes from communities with different standards on recycling and composting. That means the education component is crucial, even for people who are already familiar with programs that reduce waste. There are also volunteer opportunities for those interesting in teaching about composting. 

“We would have liked to do this in 2015, but we didn’t have the operational or the capital funding for it,” Kennard says. “Now we can be a great steward of the environment and work toward zero waste.”

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