CHELMSFORD — In the produce aisle of the Hannaford supermarket here, stacks of gorgeous red Roma tomatoes are placed tenderly in tiered “pocket protector” trays to help reduce bruising. Behind the doors of the dairy refrigerators, leaky gallons of milk are pulled aside in a basket. The fat trimmings and other gristly bits that don’t make their way into the meat displays are culled into special bins. Bagels and French baguettes are plucked from cases in the bakery department before they get stale.
All of the food, should it reach a point past its peak freshness, is handled with a higher purpose: achieving the chain’s ambitious goal of creating zero food waste.
Hannaford has 183 grocery stores throughout the Northeast, and over the past year, the Scarborough, Maine-based chain has diverted 65 million pounds of unsellable food products to pantries, farms, and anaerobic digestion facilities, where the waste is converted to energy. The company now says that none of its food is tossed into landfills, which would make it the first large-scale grocer in New England and New York to achieve zero food waste.
The waste reduction is part of a global effort undertaken by its parent company, Ahold Delhaize, of the Netherlands, which also owns the Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop chains. But Hannaford executives say their approach to reducing waste is leading the industry here in the United States.
“The health and well-being of our planet are a top priority for all of us at Hannaford and we recognize that our role in the food supply chain comes with great responsibility,” said Mike Vail, president of Hannaford Supermarkets, in a statement. “The impact food waste has on our environment cannot be overstated.”
Nearly 1.3 billion tons of food are lost or wasted globally each year — or about a third of all food produced — and in high-income countries like the United States, 30 percent of that waste happens at the retail or consumer level. Lost or wasted food has direct connections to climate change, said Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, as all the resources used to grow, package, transport, and distribute food create greenhouse gas emissions.
“When we throw away food, we’re not just wasting the food but we’re wasting all the emissions that occurred up to the point of it getting to our table,” she said.
Grocery stores contribute about 10 percent of the food waste created throughout the supply chain, but have an outsized role in how much food in total goes uneaten through their purchasing decisions and in-store promotions, many of which encourage customers to buy more than they need, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit Center For Biological Diversity.
“To effectively mitigate the environmental impacts of food waste, grocery companies must shift their focus to reducing supply chain and in-store waste,” the report said. “Maintaining the status quo by focusing on donation and recycling programs, instead of prevention and zero-waste commitments, diverts attention from the environmental costs of wasted food and the systemic change needed to address them.”
But few grocery stores track their food waste at all, according to ReFED, a nonprofit group that is working to eliminate food waste, which estimates that US retailers generate 10.5 million tons of surplus food a year.
“This is about consumer awareness and retail awareness,” said Democratic congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine, who has coauthored a bill in the House focused on reducing food waste. “I’d like to see more requirements related to this,” she said, “but having a big chain understand their own responsibility and the value sets a great example, and shows other retailers it can be done.”
Hannaford’s goal of zero food waste was 10 years in the making, said George Parmenter, the manager of sustainability at Ahold Delhaize US, and it involved looking at the entire supply chain that gets food to stores. As he wandered through the back rooms of the Chelmsford store last week, he explained how the company had made adjustments to its purchasing decisions and sourcing, reducing the distance food had to travel where it could. All of its leafy greens, for example, are now grown at a hydroponic farm in Maine.
The company uses special display trays for food like tomatoes and is constantly rotating the cucumbers and eggplants in bins to avoid bruising. Hannaford has been experimenting with coatings on limes to see if they can extend shelf life and hopes to work with suppliers to incorporate such planning into their processing.
Once an item is determined unsellable, it’s triaged using the Environmental Protection Agency’s food-recovery guidelines on how to divert food waste. Edible food is sent to food banks, while other products are sent to farms as animal feed. Spoiled milk, meat scraps, and other items not suitable for consumption end up in bins that are collected by Agri-Cycle, a waste-collection company in Maine that has worked alongside Hannaford over the past decade to ramp up services.
Agri-Cycle started as a side project at the Stonyvale dairy farm in Exeter, Maine, after the fifth-generation owners were looking for a way to handle excess manure and expand their revenue beyond milk production. They eventually built an anaerobic digester, which uses food scraps, manure, and other organic matter to produce biogas that can be used as an energy source. Any solid byproducts are used as bedding for the farm animals, and liquids are used as fertilizer for crops.
The company now counts Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Massachusetts General Hospital as clients, but has developed a particularly strong relationship with Hannaford.
“We wanted to eliminate all the food waste from landfills. And really the only way to do that was getting it out of the package,” said Parmenter. So Agri-Cycle built a “de-packaging” facility to help it increase the amount of food that Hannaford and other grocery stores could divert from landfills.
De-packaging machines work like Edward Scissorhands, slicing and spinning the piles of discarded products to separate the food from the cans, boxes, jugs, and other packaging. The organics are then squeezed out and added to a slurry that goes into the anaerobic digester.
“Hannaford saw the opportunity to see a small company grow with them and help achieve their sustainability goals,” said Daniel Bell, Agri-Cycle’s president. “Their involvement really gave us the confidence to make another $1 million investment in the equipment.”
The company has built a second, larger digester which can process over 3.2 million gallons of food waste at a time.
While Hannaford’s achievement is noteworthy, there are some who say its chosen path to zero waste is important, too.
James Gist, chief financial officer at the Brick End Farm composting facility in Hamilton, used to collect some of Hannaford’s compost until 2018, when the grocer began diverting the food to de-packaging facilities and digesters instead. He argues that byproducts of the de-packaging machines render the plastic bags and containers too filthy to recycle. And diverting organic material to digesters doesn’t contribute to the health of the soil and its ability to pull carbon from the air.
Bell said the industry is still in its infancy in the United States, and that he hopes there will be ways to ensure the packaging for food products can be cleaned and recycled as the infrastructure improves.
Janet Domenitz, executive director at the environmental advocacy group MassPIRG, said Hannaford’s efforts to redirect food waste should be heralded. “Anything like this where a major supermarket chain puts the muscle and brainpower and resource toward reducing waste, that just has to be celebrated,” she said.
But she underscored the need for both corporations and consumers to reduce the amount of food they produce and consume. She hopes people can use this “opportunity to further examine how much waste there is overall and consider how we can institutionalize the policies we need to put in place to reduce it.”
“Let’s not miss this moment,” she said.