The average supermarket stocks 28,112 items and much of the fresh produce, packaged meats, cartons of milk and prepared meals lining store shelves ends up in a landfill.
"The waste is really mindboggling," admits Jennifer Molidor PhD, senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
To complicate matters, most supermarkets don't track their food waste, which means there's no clear data on how much edible food ends up in dumpsters instead of shopping carts. ReFED, a national nonprofit working to end food waste, estimated that retailers generated 10.5 million tons of food waste, sending almost one-third of wasted food to the landfill.
Despite concerns about the environmental impacts of wasted food from squandered resources required to grow, process and transport foods to the methane food waste generates in the landfill, Molidor believes waste is built into the supermarket retail strategy.
"Overstocking is business as usual," she says. "The consumer is much more likely to buy a head of lettuce when it's one in a pile of 20 heads of lettuce."
Some supermarkets are stepping up to address food waste, according to the report, Slow Road to Zero. The annual report card ranking supermarkets on their path to zero waste found that Kroger, Walmart and Ahold Delhaize (a chain that includes Food Lion, Giant and Fresh Direct), earned "A" grades for food waste reduction efforts.
These grocers incorporated strategies included reporting volumes of food waste and implementing purchasing strategies such as forecasting and ordering tools to reduce food waste. All three supermarkets have also committed to achieving zero food waste by 2025.
"While [supermarkets] are not the biggest wedge in the food waste pie, it's still significant because these retailers manage so much food," says Dana Gunders, executive director for ReFED. "There is a lot of effort happening in retail; [grocers] are certainly trying."
Grocery gains (and losses)
In 2017, Kroger established a Zero Hunger/Zero Waste effort aimed at reducing food waste. Their 2020 data shows that the grocer generated 288,966 tons of food waste and diverted 44.7% from the landfill (up from 27.1% in 2017). The would-be food waste was sent to animal food operations, composting facilities and anaerobic digesters. The supermarket also partners with Feeding America to send surplus foods to food banks in local communities.
Other grocers have made lesser commitments. Albertsons and New Seasons Markets were among the grocers in Oregon, Washington and California that joined the Pacific Coast Collaborative, committing to reducing the amount of wasted food by 50% by 2030. (Kroger also signed on to the voluntary agreement but has more robust food waste reduction goals).
While some grocers have made good progress in addressing food waste, Gunders believes, "there is still a lot of food going to waste and it's often food that could be…donated and there are solutions that could be implemented."
A growing awareness of the impact of food waste hasn't been enough to compel grocers like Costco, Publix and Trader Joe's to make public commitments to food waste reduction. The markets have also failed to implement transparent data tracking or comprehensive prevention strategies. As a result, the supermarkets earned "D" grades in the Slow Road to Zero report.
Some of the food waste efforts supermarkets have implemented, including "ugly food" campaigns, which encourage shoppers to choose imperfect produce, have been unsuccessful. Research published in the Journal of Marketing found that consumers avoided so-called ugly produce and their attitudes led to increased store waste and decreased sales. Moreover, Molidor notes that recycling blemished, unsold produce into the smoothie bar or incorporating it into baked goods makes minimal impact on overall waste reduction.
Grocers that operate donation programs (also called food recovery programs) are able to divert an estimated 20% of edible foods from the landfill and donate it to food pantries and other organizations helping those dealing with food insecurity. Expectations that supermarkets will donate excess food are high with consumers calling out "bad actors" that are failing to send excess food to food pantries.
Fred Meyer, a supermarket chain based out of Portland, Oregon, owned by Kroger, made national headlines earlier this year when staff tossed food into dumpsters following a power outage. Crowds tried to rescue the foods, which the grocer deemed "unfit for consumption or donation" and police were called. The event sparked conversations about wasted food and food donations.
Legislation could play a role, and already has, in reducing food waste in supermarkets.
France was a pioneer in excess food laws, enacting legislation in 2016 that banned supermarkets from throwing out edible food. It's been suggested that the law sparked the development of "a whole ecosystem of businesses that are helping grocery stores better manage their stocks and reduce food waste."
In the U.S., seven states, including California, Connecticut and Massachusetts, have passed bills that restrict food waste from going to the landfill.
New York state assemblyman Tom Abinanti co-sponsored the Excess Food Act. The bill, which goes into effect in June 2021, requires supermarkets with over 10,000 square feet of retail space to donate excess food to food banks, soup kitchens and other relief agencies that request donations.
"Supermarkets don't want to sell [food] that's close to the expiration date because customers won't buy it," Abinanti says. "The food is still good if it's approaching — or even if it passes —the 'sold by' date [and] it can be distributed; we don't have to worry about it spoiling."
New technologies are also helping grocers reduce their food waste. The app Too Good To Go launched in Denmark and has been rolled out across 15 countries in Europe and the U.K. to alert customers about excess food, allow in-app purchases, at discounted prices, that are picked up in the stores before food goes to waste. Developers expect to roll out the app in the U.S. later this year.
Gunders believes these "flash sale" apps have the potential to reduce food waste. Other tools, including enhanced demand planning that use Big Data to help supermarkets predict demand and order the right amount of foods, could also cut down on wasted food.
"Retailers manage huge amounts of food and are so influential in the food system," Gunders says. "It's always been important to grocery stores to be good community institutions and they are starting to see [food waste reduction] more as a way to do that [but] there are opportunities for them to do more."
For food waste reduction efforts to be successful, Molidor notes that supermarkets must first commit to achieving zero waste, set a target date and provide transparent data to consumers about their efforts. With those tools, she believes supermarkets could achieve zero food waste by 2025.
"It's an ambitious goal," she admits. "If Walmart, which is a massive company, can do it, other companies can do it, too."