Don’t Be Trashy
By Pat Pape
Mike Lawshe hates litter, especially when he sees it blowing across the parking lot or accumulating at the edges of an otherwise attractive convenience store.
As president and CEO of Paragon Solutions, a Fort Worth retail design firm, Lawshe spends his day planning and branding convenience stores. His goal is to create a retail setting that provides a great customer experience and keeps customers coming back. Litter is not part of his plan.
Whether consumers drive up to a sparkling storefront or a litter-filled parking lot, “it’s all part of the first impression,” he said.
Litter accumulates easily but is difficult to eliminate. And while it may seem a simple annoyance to some, it can actually mean money out of your pocket.
“Our research shows that the cost is well over $11.5 billion each year—and that’s a conservative number—to clean up and address litter throughout the United States,” said Cecile Carson, vice president of litter and affiliate relations for Keep America Beautiful. “The business sector bears the largest brunt of that because [that] sector is there every day trying to keep their property clean.”
Litter can also cost the convenience industry in the form of denied applications for new store construction. When retailers seek permits to build new convenience stores, they sometimes face opposition from vocal neighborhood groups concerned about potential problems, such as unsightly litter that a busy 24-hour operation may generate.
C-stores are a convenient place to shop, but “unfortunately, they are convenient places for litter to accumulate,” said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives at NACS. “When we survey consumers, we ask what they think about our industry and what they like and don’t like about it. Trash and litter are among the most highly cited reasons that people don’t want a convenience store in their neighborhood.”
In reality, food packaging from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants makes up about 5% of all litter in the United States, according to Keep America Beautiful. However, it has a big impression on people since it accounts for about 19% of the “visible” litter stream, which includes any item measuring more than four inches. This ranges from food containers and cans to napkins and paper, such as straw wrappers.
According to Keep America Beautiful research, approximately 85% of littering is the result of people’s attitudes. People who see litter are more likely to lit- ter. And foodservice packaging spreads easily, thanks to high winds and the consumer mobility.
Although your parking lot may be peppered with food containers from a neighboring fast-food outlet and fliers from the local school, consumers will still hold you responsible for the way your store looks. “The challenge with litter is that it doesn’t matter if it came from your store or your customer,” Lenard said. “If it’s on your lot, the perception is that it’s your fault.”
Many convenience stores see litter as a liability and have established procedures to manage it, with most focusing on a regular schedule of trash maintenance.
At Kum & Go stores of West Des Moines, Iowa, managers rely on standard operating procedures and formal shift checklists that indicate how and when associates should take trash to the dumpster (including the appropriate frequency), inspect the parking lot and maintain trash receptacle areas. Ac- cording to Kristie Bell, director of communications for Kum & Go: “General managers are accountable for making sure those tasks are completed.”
At QuikTrip of Tulsa, Oklahoma, store employees remove trash from the interior and exterior of the store at least three times daily. “We want to keep the store as clean as possible, and a lot of that is removing trash,” said Mike Thornbrugh, manager of communications and public affairs. “By doing that, you avoid a lot of problems.”
RaceTrac of Atlanta, Georgia, takes a hands-on approach. “Team members regularly walk our stores and parking lots during the first and second shifts,” said Karissa Burch, communications manager. “They pick up litter, and this helps ensure the cleanliness of our lots.”
Meanwhile 7-Eleven stores have vowed to reduce packaging by 20% by 2025, a goal that would also reduce litter. According to the 7-Eleven website, the chain has already redesigned its hot dog carton, which cut consumption of paperboard by 2%, eliminating an estimated 50 tons of paper on an annualized basis.
Like its competitors, Rutter’s of York, Pennsylvania, has an extensive checklist for managing trash at the chain’s 66 stores. “It’s a mix of daily and weekly tasks,” said Kirsten Dickason, marketing coordinator for Rutter’s. “Store associates must check the trash at least once during the first and second shifts, both inside and outside.”
Rutter’s has a couple of waste challenges that are unique to other c-stores. For one, the chain has two new locations in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is home to many Amish families who rely on horse-drawn buggies for transportation. Both new stores have parking areas exclusively for the buggies and a special, designated trash can and shovel so drivers can pick up any waste their horses leave behind.
“About half the time the customers clean up,” Dickason said. “If not, a store employee does it. It’s part of their routine when they check on the trash.”
A second challenge is Rutter’s voluntary recycling program, which began in 2008. It involves placing a single, branded recycling bin outside each store so customers can dispose of plastic, cans and glass.
“Store employees check the recycle bins at least once every first and second shift and empty them as needed,” Dickason said. “They then take the recycling to the large recycle dumpster we have, and it is taken away by our waste haulers. Every store has at least one recycle bin, and so does our corporate headquarters.”
Rutter’s has also partnered with Penn Waste, which provides waste disposal and recycling services, to encourage more recycling and less trash. For Earth Day in April 2015, the two businesses sponsored both a social media and an outdoor public awareness campaign, and Penn Waste gave away free Earth Day totes, which could be picked up at Rutter’s locations.
To come out a winner in the war against litter, stores need weapons that will give them an edge. The first, of course, is trash receptacles and plenty of them.
“Customers aren’t going to walk two extra steps to your trash bin just because you put it there,” said Lawshe, whose business requires him to study consumer behavior. “Look at where they park. Is it convenient for them, and how can you make it more convenient for them to use that trash bin? Don’t try to save a couple of bucks by putting one at every other island. Your customers will help if you give them trash bins where they need them.”
Keep America Beautiful has done behavioral observation at convenience stores and fast-food sites. “We found that if there were no containers in that area, people [would] litter,” Carson said. “A trash receptacle makes a significant difference in that process.”
She also pointed to the personal observations of Walt Disney, who watched his theme-park visitors eat and then calculated that they took 30 steps before requiring a trash can. Today trash cans at the Disney parks are approximately 30 feet apart.
There are also new technologies to help stores look sharp. “A lot of stores have built-in pressure washer systems that let them clean the building, the eaves, the sidewalks and driveways,” Lawshe said. “You see people out there wiping down a pump the old-fashioned way or trying to clean the driveway. But there is technology available that can help keep a store clean.”
The public doesn’t know how much effort the c-store industry puts into fighting litter, according to Lenard, and stores don’t get recognition for their efforts. He advises retailers to promote their endeavors at maintaining a clean storefront and being a good neighbor.
“You want to address trash problems, but you aren’t getting credit for what you’re doing,” he said.
“There might be opportunities to tell that story on a companywide or industrywide basis.”
While recycling is seen as the trendy method for managing waste, Lenard admits there are obstacles to recycling for convenience operators.
“Most stores are small and don’t really have the facilities to accept recycling,” he said. “But your store could have a recycling event on a Saturday, asking consumers to bring batteries and printer cartridges and other recyclable materials that you can dispose of properly. It’s a great way to announce that you’re a destination on the weekend, and you get credit for doing good. You become someplace that is addressing trash and not causing it.”
He is also a big proponent of the refillable mug program that many stores use to encourage repeat business. “This is a huge opportunity when positioned properly to tell people you care about the environment, while instilling loyalty at the same time,” he said. “If consumers have your loyalty mug, they’re going to use it at your store. And you can tell the story about the number of paper cups you are keeping out of the landfill.”
The NACS reFresh program was created in 2014 to help convenience retailers address topics of concern to their business and improve the overall perception of the convenience industry. In 2017, the program will focus on litter reduction and enhanced store images as well as some other key areas, Lenard said.
“While reFresh is about healthy eating, it also addresses trash issues,” he said. “Just because you do good doesn’t mean people know about it. A cleaner community is a good story to tell and there is a role for the c-store industry to play in it.”
Pat Pape worked in the convenience industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer.