Zero waste

When it comes to Philadelphia’s history, McGillin’s Olde Ale House has no peer. With its beer taps flowing since 1860—the year the nation first elected Abraham Lincoln—McGillin’s is the oldest continuously operating tavern in the city as well as one of the country’s oldest.

But it’s also one of the most progressive. Located on Drury Street, a tiny alley in the shadow of Philadelphia’s ornate city hall, McGillin’s is an old dog learning some new tricks. The tavern is developing a zero-waste plan, meaning only 10 percent or less of its waste will go into a landfill. In fact, after its first sustainability exercise and audit this spring, McGillin’s racked up some impressive statistics. Eleven percent of waste that was not directly recyclable was sent to a landfill, putting McGillin’s very close to hitting the “zero waste” standard its first time out.

To get that close, Mullins enlisted the help of Maurice Sampson, a Philadelphia-based urban recycling pioneer and president and founder of Niche Recycling. The new waste plan for McGillin’s—which Mullins is calling the “Drury Street Green” effort— has primary points of attack: recycling (mainly bottles and boxes), composting and replacing non-biodegradable restaurant trash—for example, soufflé cups, straws, basket liners, napkins and paper plates—with compostable and biodegradable options. Using that strategy, when McGillin’s moved to its new recycling plan in the spring, results were immediate and dramatic.

McGillin’s trained the staff on separating waste products properly, making the process as simple and clear as possible. Mullins says that the more steps involved, the harder it is to get everyone to adapt to the program. Each area where there was one trash can, they now have three—one for recycling, one for compost and one for general garbage.  They adjust the sizing of cans and carve out space to accommodate them.

“Space is at a huge premium in an urban environment, but it was a fairly easy process,” Mullins says. “We purchased the right size can for each use. Because our garbage [what goes to the landfill] is the smallest part of what we toss, we use very tiny receptacles.”

Compost goes into the green cans and recycling into the blue ones. McGillin’s also created very clear signage on each can to reiterate each use. In the beginning, all of this was necessary as each employee has a different ability to adapt, Mullins says.

Next, Mullins increased the number of compostable paper and plastic products purchased, which he says is becoming easier to do with today’s emphasis on “green” products.

“The internal plan now is running like clockwork,” Mullins reports. “It has totally caught on. In fact, our staff volunteers new ideas when they see them.”  For example, one staffer suggested finding alternatives to the current potato chip bags (the search is in progress) and the staff also was very eager to replace the 16-oz plastic cups and Styrofoam containers the absolute first day it rolled out the composting program.

Of course, being an Ale House, the focus is on draught beer. To that end, McGillin’s keeps its list of bottled beers short. Also, with draught beers, the tavern serves mostly regional brews, cutting down on carbon emissions from beer being shipped from long distances.

Based on McGillin’s success to date, Mullins is hoping to pull 15 or so neighboring eateries and businesses into modern times as well when it comes to sustainability. Right now, for example, there are about 20 trash dumpsters lining Drury Street. The downside is obvious: Not only are they an eyesore and create bad odors for pedestrians and customers, they also are a blight on the environment and are expensive to maintain.

“With our program, the cost will be about equal or less to what they’re currently paying trash haulers, who are unreliable and often further block the alley,” says Mullins, whose family has owned McGillin’s for 58 years.

Mullins is in negotiations with a developer to get permission to turn a small parking lot in the alley into a central trash collection, recycling and composting area. The space would have two trash compactors (one trash, one recycling) and a large BiobiN for composting kitchen waste. Mullins noted that kitchen waste could also be composted offsite. He has the support of neighborhood associations, neighbors and members of the city council. The problem is funding, as the effort needs between $200,000 and $300,000 for equipment and a person to staff the area to train neighbors on sorting and disposing their trash. He’s working on that, too.

“Philadelphia is a great city, a destination city,” Mullins says. “With this type of program citywide, it can be even greater.”


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