The Journey to Waste Diversion Starts at the Landfill

Kristin Kinder

2014 Total Municipal Solid Waste Landfilled US EPAThe grocery sector is one of the most challenging segments in the world of waste management, thanks to the complex and diverse multiple waste streams. Fortunately, it also presents the greatest opportunity for waste reduction and savings. During our recent webinar, “Unpacking Grocery Waste to Drive Big Results,” Ecova’s waste experts, Arnold Bowers, Cynthia Forsch, and Kristin Kinder, provided strategies for maximizing cost savings and diversion and setting up each grocery department for success.

Why examine waste, and why now? It starts at the top: the USDA and EPA have established a goal to reduce grocery food waste in landfills by 50 percent in the United States by 2030. The EPA’s Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet supports what Ecova has discovered during waste audits conducted for our clients; food waste is a significant portion of what ends up in the landfill. While grocery stores often produce more food waste than other businesses, ideally, their food waste would be less than 15 percent of their landfilled waste production.

Start with the Data

Cutting waste is a lot like cutting energy use – you’ll find greater success when you start with the data and understand which problem you are trying to solve, because it is true, you can’t manage what you don’t take the time to measure.

First, examine your waste holistically… at Ecova, this is fondly referred to as a waste audit, aka the “dumpster dive.” Choose a location to conduct your audit and select a representative sample. Sort the waste into categories: food (even going so far as to break it further down by department), paper and cardboard, plastic, glass, metal, and “true waste.” Sort and weigh each sample and then review the data. When audits are performed at different sites, combined they create a benchmark from which to measure future progress and improvement.

Determine Service Needs

After your waste audits are completed, match the collection service type to your actual waste composition. What drives your service needs?

  • Revenue: The highest revenue locations probably will require more services. Consider adding services that assist with diversion opportunities, such as balers, compactors, front end loaders, static equipment/carts for collecting recyclables, etc.
  • Reverse logistics: For smaller locations, where services may be more expensive for a small volume, consider moving materials like cardboard and plastic to a central site, like a warehouse or distribution center that handles a greater volume and maximize rebates.
  • Seasonality: Turn services up or down based on certain seasons. During the summer months and holidays, you probably see an increase in food and cardboard.

Employee Involvement is Critical

During the webinar, attendees responded to the following poll question: “What is your biggest (or perceived) challenge with collecting food waste?” Fifty-two percent of respondents answered employee behavior, followed by collection logistics (21%), knowing the right technology (14%), and finding a vendor (14%).

Once you’ve established a benchmark and a plan for improvement, addressing employee behavior is the most important aspect of ensuring success. Employees should understand and believe that waste diversion, composting and recycling is important to the business and is supported from the top down. Knowing this will empower employees to support the program and look for solutions to the problem.

Second, match food diversion programs to the department. A few strategies include:

  • Produce: This area generates more food and packaging waste than any other department. There’s a growing popularity for pre-cut fruit and vegetables, both delivered and prepared in store. While convenient for the customer, it produces extra organic food waste for the store. This is a great opportunity to make diversion easy for employees. Provide central bins, labeled with what should go where: in-store composting, sending outside the store for composting, and sending out of the store as animal feed are just a few examples. There are opportunities to divert packaging from the waste stream as well, which begins before the produce ever reaches your store. Avoid ordering Styrofoam, plastic water shower boxes or heavily waxed boxes, which aren’t easily recycled. Non-coated, stackable, recyclable boxes are ideal.
  • Fish, meat and dairy: As products reach their “best by” dates, they are often pulled from the shelves and thrown away. What many people may not realize is that food is perfectly safe to consume after this “best by” date, which communicates peak quality rather than safety. Instead, pull products to freeze on the “best by” date and then donate them to food banks.
  • Bakery: Follow the same “best by” donation practices as above. Whatever cannot be donated can be diverted to composting.

Be sure to track the volume of food donations and utilize it for company tax credits!

Remember, the journey to better waste management starts at the landfill and works back to the store. Learn your “waste story” through audits, then collect data for benchmarks. Match the collection methods at the loading dock to what you discovered in your waste stream, and consider new technologies. Finally, get employees involved at every level and teach them to take ownership of waste diversion tactics. You’ll be well on your way to maximizing cost savings!

For more tactics and information, we invite you to listen to the webinar recording here.

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