ALBANY — The 183 supermarkets in the Hannaford chain generated 65 million pounds of food waste in 2020, and sent none of it to the landfill.
The Maine-based company announced the milestone on the longstanding drive to sustainability Tuesday at the Albany store, and said it had been reached through multiple paths:
- Everything that can be sold is offered for sale, of course.
- Fruits and vegetables that are a bit unattractive but still perfectly edible are donated to food banks and food pantries, as are short-dated meat and dairy products; such donations totaled 25 million pounds in 2020.
- That which is unsuitable for human consumption but still good for livestock is shipped off to farms, mainly to pig farms.
- Items not suitable even for pigs are stripped of their plastic wrappings and left to decompose in an oxygen-deprived setting that generates gas that is burned to create electricity; the remaining solid waste product becomes fertilizer and animal bedding, some of which goes to dairy farms that supply Hannaford supermarkets.
A key parallel effort is reducing food waste to begin with.
“For us, one of the most important things is to make sure that we’re gauging our demand and creating our production to match what the needs are of the customers,” said Andy Willette, director of operations for Hannaford.
Computer-assisted ordering supplements department leaders’ suggestions and requests with an algorithm factoring in the day of week, time of year and weekly advertised specials, said Jessica Cucchi, manager of the North Troy Hannaford.
2020, with its sudden increase in demand by consumers stuck at home, was a pressure test for the system, he said, both for Hannaford and local food pantries. The effort likely wouldn’t have worked without the network of local and regional partners that had been built over the previous several years, Willette added.
“So as the demand spiked for the charitable food giving, we were able to meet that,” he said.
Local store managers play an important role in the process and hold considerable autonomy from the headquarters in Maine, as they are the ones tasked with forming partnerships with local community organizations that will distribute the still-edible food to needy residents of the area.
“We leverage that with each store to be able to create a local network of four or five partner agencies to be able to connect locally,” Willete said. “And then the partnership that we have with agriculture really delivers on the composting side.”
Food recovery and donation are long-running efforts in the supermarket industry, but can only go so far in keeping things out of the waste stream: Battered cantaloupes and sour milk can’t go to the local food pantry.
Hannaford teamed up with Maine-based Agri-Cycle to deal with these inedible items.
Agri-Cycle has two key tools that make this happen: A de-packaging machine that strips plastic containers and wrappers off food items and sets them aside for disposal, and anaerobic digesters that decompose the food.
The digesters are spread across Hannaford’s operating territory; waste food from Capital Region stores goes to a digester operated by Natural Upcycling in Utica.
“It’s a pretty brilliant circular economy,” said Holden Cookson, sustainable waste solutions manager for Agri-Cycle.
The larger issue of food waste extends far beyond supermarkets and other retailers. It runs from the gates of the farm where the food was grown to the consumer refrigerator that is its final stop.
Anywhere along the way it can be mishandled, contaminated, bruised, nibbled by critters, spoiled, smashed, forgotten in the fridge or simply rejected by a picky eater.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture places the total food waste at 31% at the retail and consumer levels, and up to 40% at all levels. This equaled 133 billion pounds worth $161 billion in 2010, USDA said.
The USDA and federal Environmental Protection Agency set a goal of 50% reduction of food waste by 2030 — from a 2010 baseline of 219 pounds wasted per person in the United States to 109 pounds.
The path described Tuesday by Hannaford follows the Food Recovery Hierarchy laid out by the USDA and EPA. From most to least preferable it is:
- Reduce Waste
- Feed Hungry People
- Feed Animals
- Industrial Reuse
- Incineration or Landfill