How Retailers Can Close the Waste Loop
Best practices for stores to become vital links in a more circular economy through retail food waste
Across the U.S., thousands of stores sell a wide array of food, plants, and other organic-based products each year. In fact, the average supermarket carries nearly 30,000 items, many of those organic-based. These products have three things in common: 1) they tend to be perishable and susceptible to rot, 2) they are prone to damage due to supply chain handling and interruptions; and 3) they are recyclable into new products that can often be sold at the same retailers that generated the waste.
The process of closing the loop by converting a resource (typically considered a “waste”) into a new product supports the ultimate goal to eliminate “waste” through circularity. When retailers and recyclers create a partnership to close the loop on waste to product, the results are great for business, customers, and the environment. Additionally, with the average cost of disposal at solid waste landfills in the U.S. climbing to over $60 per ton, recycling grocery food waste and other types of organics is often a cost-competitive option.
Few people understand retailers’ waste needs and recycling options like Kate Worley. Worley has nearly two decades of experience working with some of the world’s largest companies to address waste in their stores and in their supply chains. She currently serves as Vice President of Sustainability and Business Solutions at Denali, a company that recycles organic waste for thousands of grocery and garden retailers.
Worley argues that after reducing as much waste as possible, retailers can be a crucial link in a more circular economy. Converting organic waste streams, such as food waste, into valuable products is inherently circular and the lowest hanging fruit in the circular economy challenge. A successful circular process requires a new more local approach to current business models and a focus on multiple factors. This article will focus on three: logistics, technology, and messaging.
“Transportation and consolidating enough volume to justify transportation costs is a big challenge,” Worley said. “Retailers need to think creatively, especially when integrating a perceived “waste” stream into the supply chain as a building block for products. Collaboration amongst supply chain partners can also be very beneficial in leveraging transportation capacity, cost, and routing.”
The sprawl characteristic of many U.S. cities does no favors for recycling logistics. Stores may be many miles apart, while sites like compost facilities are often well outside of the urban core because of land prices and permitting requirements. As such, the costs of transporting damaged products, expired goods, or recalled food products from retailers to organics processing facilities can quickly add up. The network of efficiently moving materials becomes a particularly important consideration to maximize value.
To mitigate potential added expenses, retailers need to consider whether they can consolidate waste volumes for better route efficiencies. Selecting a recycling provider that is a partner in customizing service, accommodating varying volumes due to seasonal and variable product flow, and is able to convert those “waste” streams into product is important, Worley said.
There have been major advancements in waste and recycling technologies over the last decade. Material recovery facilities (MRF’s) now deploy sensors, robotics, and artificial intelligence to sort recyclable materials. More landfills have been outfitted with methane capture systems that put much of that greenhouse gas to beneficial use rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere. And for food waste, machines to separate packaging from contents, as well as improved composting processes, have made recycling more efficient and circularity more attainable.
“Voluntary commitments by businesses, including the largest retailers, to achieve zero waste through reduction, donation/reuse, and recycling have enabled the organics infrastructure to expand throughout the U.S. In addition, organics recycling mandates have prompted a build-out in organics recycling facilities and upgrades in technologies. There have never been so many options for and awareness of organics recycling as there is now,” Worley said.
Mechanical depackaging machines have been a breakthrough for food waste recycling, enabling items like food in plastic containers, soil in bags, and beverages in cans to be recycled rather than sent to landfills because of their packaging. The design of these devices varies, but all involve processes that open packaging without breaking it into many pieces. Then, the physical properties of the organic contents are captured to separate them from the packaging. Two distinct material streams then exit depackaging machines: organics that can be turned into compost, animal feed, renewable energy, and other valuable products; and the packaging, which in some cases can also be recycled.
“Whether it’s food or garden products, organic waste from retailers has value. Packaging is no longer a barrier to putting this value to good use,” Worley said. “Retailers should no longer default to sending un-sellable food and other organic products to landfills, because there is often a better solution available thanks to new technologies.”
“Customers are keenly aware of greenwashing, which is overstating the sustainability or environmental benefits of products and services. But there is still demand for green products and green business approaches. The key is to communicate credibly about the food waste solutions being deployed and the degree of circularity achieved,” Worley said.
Data is the foundation of credibility, according to Worley. The common saying “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” holds true for retailers. Credible data relies on investment in processes, systems, technology, and people. For food waste diversion, for instance, data should answer the questions of how much food waste was generated; how much was reduced, reused, or donated; and what volume was recycled and what were the methods of recycling. Data related to circularity on the product side requires additional tracking and insight, while educational messaging and environmental certifications can be valuable to connect with the consumer.
“At the end of the day, reducing impact on the environment is one factor that drives consumer behavior, but we cannot ignore that price and quality are equally or more important. Data can help with this, as well, and it is important to note that a circular product can be cost-competitive and equal-to-better quality than its non-circular counterpart,” Worley said.
It is also key to give customers the full picture, even if that is less than perfect. It may seem undesirable to publish statistics on the quantity of material that was not recycled and therefore ended up at landfills. But Worley said she has found that consumers often desire transparency, and this information can be a baseline for ongoing improvements and a basis for related sustainability goals.
In summary, logistics, technology, and messaging contribute to a new reality in which retailers should rethink their waste streams and see them as assets. Reducing waste at the source must continue to be a priority. But a trash dumpster should not be the first choice or the end of the story. Unsellable goods can often stay in the economy, completing the cycle from manufacturer to retailer to consumer once again — for the benefit of businesses and the planet.
Photo Caption: A Denali driver collects pre-consumer food waste from a grocery store. Denali works with compost yards, anaerobic digesters, and farmers to recycle unsold, non-edible grocery store waste.