America's Great Small Businesses: Food Co-Op Reduces Environmental Footprint Through Composting
Know where your food comes from. That’s the mission behind Sugar Beet Food Co-op, a full-service, co-op grocery store located in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Launched in 2015, Sugar Beet is committed to creating a more sustainable approach to food, connecting farmers and producers to their customers and providing the community with local, healthy options.
“Sugar Beet reminds me of the grassroots culture established in the early expansion of Whole Foods,” says Marketing Manager Lissa Dysart, who started her career with Whole Foods in 1993. “We have a unique ability to respond to growers quickly and easily that’s simply not possible with a large chain.”
Sugar Beet cultivates close relationships with a variety of individual farms, helping them bring their products to market and enabling Oak Park’s shoppers to support the local farming community.
“The grower can come in, speak to our team, and come up with a good timeline and strategy for their product together on the spot,” Dysart says.
As one would expect from a local co-op grocery, environmental sustainability is at the core of Sugar Beet’s operations. That extends to its waste and recycling program, where the grocer has gotten creative to minimize its footprint.
“We do as much recycling and composting as we possibly can, but the reality is that—as a retail business—we still create a lot of waste,” Dysart says.
A large percentage of Sugar Beet’s inventory is fresh produce, and almost all of that produce is delivered in wax cardboard boxes. These boxes are commercially compostable, but the waste hauler contracted by the Village of Oak Park—Waste Management—could not accommodate the amount of cardboard that Sugar Beet was attempting to compost.
“I was embarrassed. Almost all of the cardboard was just heading out to a landfill with the rest of the non-recyclable waste,” Dysart says.
Early this year, Sugar Beet transitioned its waste services to Rubicon Global, an Atlanta-based technology company that helps companies make waste management more efficient and cost-effective while finding innovative ways to reduce waste and re-use or recycle materials. Rubicon connected Sugar Beet with its local Chicago hauler partner, Lakeshore Recycling. The hauler provided Sugar Beet with compost containers that are picked up twice a week—tripling the amount of materials sent for composting, which were previously being sent to a landfill.
“It’s outstanding and has become a point of pride—we’re thrilled to divert the waste we were previously sending to landfills,” Dysart says. “We’ve saved a little money as well, but the truth is, even if it was the same cost or a bit more, we’d still be committed.”
By proactively introducing initiatives like cardboard composting, Sugar Beet is able to live its commitment to sustainability more fully as it serves Oak Park and its surrounding communities.
“As a community, Oak Park is very mindful of reducing waste, but as a business, it’s hard to find the same kind of resources that you can find as an individual citizen and consumer,” Dysart says. “We’re just glad to do our small part.”
Sugar Beet is a great example of one of the “Best Small Businesses in America,” a contest that Rubicon Global is running throughout the month of October to recognize small businesses that balance a physical presence in their community with embracing sustainability activities that make a difference for the environment. The winner will receive $10,000 to help support and grow their business. To enter, visit www.rubiconglobal.com/best-small-business-contest and describe how your business is “crossing the Rubicon” of success in your community in a unique way. Discuss the challenges you’ve faced and overcome to make your business successful, as well as socially and environmentally conscious.