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  • Kate Egelhof

Earth Day Every Day: Shopping Sustainably at the Co-op

Earth Day is one of our favorite holidays here at Harmony Co-op, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone. We’re all about sustainability here; from the solar awning to the pollinator garden, environmental friendliness is literally built into the co-op. You don’t have to work here, or even be an owner (though we’d love it!) to live more sustainably—and it doesn’t have to be Earth Day to try to make a difference, either. From the shelf to the trash can, Harmony Co-op has all sorts of tips, tricks, and best practices to do as much for the environment as we possibly can.

We’re all about the organic produce here (it’s literally the first thing you see when you walk in)—but how much does that really matter, anyway? And just what does all the jargon mean? “Organic” means that the item in question was grown or raised without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or growth hormones, and that it is not a genetically modified organism (or GMO). Studies are showing that organic farming not only is important in returning nutrients to the soil, but it greatly enhances carbon sequestration; trapping carbon in the soil prevents it from returning to the air as CO2, helping slow climate change. Harmony sources as many organic products as possible; even our conventional products are grown without artificial pesticides or fertilizers. We also like to buy from local vendors as often as we can, both for product freshness and because for every thousand dollars spent at the co-op, $1,600 of economic activity is generated in the local community. Shorter shipping distances mean less fuel used; also, products stay as fresh as possible so there’s less risk of spoilage.

Shopping in bulk is another excellent way to help the planet—and your wallet, too! Bulk shopping reduces waste, as you can buy as much or as little as you need; also, we encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable containers. Not only does buying in bulk result in less food waste—if you don’t buy more than you need, you don’t have to worry about it going bad—but it also results in less packaging waste going to landfills. Bringing your own container Is a great idea, too—just stop by the register on your way in and get it tared (that’ll save you the cost of the weight of the container).

Many of us are looking toward a more plant-based diet, whether it be for health reasons (plant-based diets contain far less cholesterol and harmful fats) or ethical; also, vegetarian and vegan diets are far less harmful for the environment (according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the production of 1 gram of meat protein can require up to 26 times more land, water and fossil fuels compared to 1 gram of soy protein). For those who do consume meat and dairy, pasture-raised and grass-fed livestock are much more sustainable than feedlot-raised animals, and pasturing animals can actually help soil quality through carbon sequestration, rotational grazing, and added organic matter.

Planning your meals ahead of time is another important step that’s both Earth-friendly and budget-friendly. A few minutes of meal planning and prepping will not only keep you from wandering too far off your grocery list (or diet plan), you’ll be able to plan long-term and use up leftovers, keeping them from going bad and getting thrown out. Reducing food waste can also mean composting; for those of you in too close quarters for a compost heap (or far enough in the country that bears are a concern), you could try using an indoor worm bin. (Chickens are also fond of food scraps, with the added benefit of fresh eggs in the morning!) Stems and trimmings can also go into the stockpot.

Sustainable food shopping doesn’t end after you’ve bought the food, or even cooked and eaten it. From food scraps to packaging, there are many ways to be more environmentally friendly. We mentioned composting and worm bins; you can also use up food scraps in more creative ways, like using vegetable peelings as natural dyes for Easter eggs or to make a pH scale. Kids can get in on the fun, too; recycled milk cartons and paper towel rolls can be made into bird feeders in a great rainy day craft activity. Recycling reduces the amount of garbage in landfills and therefore the risk of toxins leaching into the soil, air, and groundwater; reusing products rather than making new ones also reduces the potential for pollution generated during manufacturing, as well as conserving resources and energy. Aside from the observable environmental impact, recycling also saves money (both for individuals and municipalities) and creates jobs.

While many municipalities provide curbside recycling services much as they do garbage pickup, Bemidji, unfortunately, does not. Thankfully, we do have several recycling bins around town where citizens can bring their containers and cardboard, as well as the waste transfer station in the industrial park; one set is located behind Target and another at the TomStop on Irvine Avenue north of town. Containers must be rinsed and the lids removed; cardboard should be flattened if possible and free of wax or food residue (no pizza boxes, napkins, or bathroom tissue, for example). Beltrami County recently changed its recycling system to make it even easier; you don’t even have to sort your cardboard from your cans, as our recycling bins go to a facility in Fosston that sorts them on site. Appliances, bulbs, and household hazardous waste (such as engine oil, old batteries, or antifreeze) can be taken to the transfer stations. Plastic grocery bags can be recycled here at Harmony, and old medications should be brought to the county Law Enforcement Center on Minnesota Avenue (do not flush them as they may leak into the water supply). There are several secondhand and consignment shops around town that will take still-usable clothing and household goods.

Earth Day isn’t just about recycling, or organic vegetables, or one day out of the year. Earth Day is every day here at Harmony Co-op. The solar awning produces energy and protects our produce case, letting us keep veggies fresher longer without the use of pesticides. The vegetable trimmings and food waste go into compost bins and are collected by our local farmers, helping their veggies grow big enough to come to market and eventually become fertilizer themselves. Sustainability is built into our ends statements and the LED lighting system; it’s in the butterflies resting on the plants outside and the dirt they grow in. We will only have a planet to live on if we all work together, even in small ways, to keep it together, to clean the air and reinvigorate the soil and keep the water fresh for the future generations. After all, as the proverb says: “We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, we have borrowed it from our children.”

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