In my grocery store marketing days, I spent my time getting things — ideally groceries, via a financial transaction — out of the store. Unfortunately, the grocery industry creates literally tons of waste, both in product and packaging, and thus my job sometimes involved finding responsible alternatives to the dumpster.
For larger retailers, finding avenues for that waste is a full-time job. Here is what happens to the waste in your grocery store.
Some Waste Brings in Revenue
First, the good news. It is often financially in the grocery industry’s interest to divert as much waste as possible. Through one avenue or another, retailers have to pay tipping fees to send their waste to the landfill. The heavier the waste, the higher the fees.
Cardboard & Shrink Wrap
Nearly every product that comes through the back doors of a supermarket comes in a cardboard box. While some producers try to reuse boxes (banana boxes often go back to the produce distributor), most cardboard (and shrink wrap) gets smashed into giant cubes by an on-site industrial baler.
The biofuel industry is a boon to the fried food industry. If your grocer serves up game-day chicken wings, chances are they can sell leftover oil for fuel.
Butcher shops and meat departments can sell (for a very low price) their bones, fat, and other inedible meat scraps to rendering companies that will turn the unwanted waste into proteins for pet food and other industrial uses. This is circle-of-life stuff; the kind that maybe you don’t want to know about.
A Grocery Store's Diversion Plan for Waste
The EPA provides a hierarchy to divert food from landfills. Some retailers have the manpower and foresight to go through all of the steps listed, while others try two or three. Below is a modified plan, from a grocery store perspective.
Step 1: Make Money
A savvy retailer will make money with food that would otherwise be tossed. That house-made chicken stock? It’s not just part of the Snout to Tail movement. It’s profit. Once upon a time, cheese departments used to throw away Parmesan rinds. Now you can buy them wrapped up and ready to become a base for your spring risotto. (Ed note: We’ll be covering this step in-depth in a future column.)
Step 2: Feed Humans
Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996 to help protect retailers who donate food to pantries and organizations. Chances are, your grocery store has a relationship with a local food pantry to take products that don’t make the cut for their consumers. (Think: bruised tomatoes, spotted bananas, and Kraft dinner boxes that got smashed in transit.)
Are you in a city with a Chinatown? Lucky you. You can snag super cheap (and possibly overripe) produce that didn’t make the cut from retailers whose customers expect visual perfection.
Step 3: Feed Animals
Many retailers (and restaurants) hire a third-party company to pick up food waste (pretty much everything except coffee grounds, meat, and seafood) and turn it into agricultural feed. More progressive grocers (who may feel squeamish about contributing to feedlots) may have a relationship with local farmers. Remember, folks: Pigs pretty much eat anything.
Step 4: Feed the Soil (or Make Power)
The tops of carrots. The outer leaves of cabbage. Coffee grounds. Broken eggs. Melted popsicles. Through the magic of science, these things can be turned into energy. Some retailers haul this waste to an anaerobic digester, which uses it to create compost and biogas (an energy source similar to natural gas). Because food waste is smelly, heavy, and expensive to haul, some major chains (Kroger, Whole Foods Market) own and operate their own anaerobic digesters.
Step 5: Waste to Energy
A step above the landfill, this option turns food waste and its packaging into power through controlled burning. More than 86 facilities help to turn spoiled yogurt and expired frozen burritos into megawatts, fueling our power grid.
Last Resort: Landfill
Millions of pounds of waste go to the landfill each year. Maybe it’s too expensive to haul away. Maybe an area of the country doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to take waste in the ways mentioned above. For some, it keeps getting moved to the back of a “to-do” list.
If you don’t like that answer, start asking questions of your favorite retailer. If you care, so will they.