Sponsored By

Retailers Buckle Down to Accelerate Food Waste Reduction

Food waste is recognized as a top contributor to climate change, generating 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gas emissions a year—equal to emissions spewed from 42 coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and this waste occurs along the whole food value chain. That reality hit close to home for Portland, Oregon-based grocer New Seasons Market, as did the realization that there was opportunity to tackle the problem across its 20 stores to benefit both climate and its bottom line.

November 27, 2023

6 Min Read
Courtesy of New Seasons Markets

Food waste is recognized as a top contributor to climate change, generating 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) greenhouse gas emissions a year—equal to emissions spewed from 42 coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and this waste occurs along the whole food value chain. That reality hit close to home for Portland, Oregon-based grocer New Seasons Market, as did the realization that there was opportunity to tackle the problem across its 20 stores to benefit both climate and its bottom line.

But before leadership could begin to innovate came the job of determining where and why food loss happened within its operations. Putting a finger on the sources and identifying the root causes is no easy task. Each department is like a mini business with a large and varied inventory and different processes.

There was a lot of homework to do ahead of shaping a solid, viable plan.

“We had to develop new ways of working and new systems for capturing data and using insights to make changes in our ordering practices and product mix,” says Athena Petty, senior manager of Sustainability, New Seasons Market.

An internal tech team built a software tracking tool, honing in on department, item type, cost, and other metrics to gain insight by store. New Seasons’ tracking system is helping to improve ordering accuracy, identify trends in surplus food, and inform new ways to prevent waste.

Coming up with working strategies has involved planning and logistics and working across departments.

Petty points to an early success story around rotisserie chickens. They were getting pulled from the shelves by the thousands, rendered unsellable, which was found to be in part because of lacking information to guide ordering practices.  But the real eye opener was around packaging. It kept the chickens hot for a short window.  New Seasons worked with its supplier and food teams to identify packaging that could sustain the chicken at a safe temperature for longer—rotisseries that did not sell within the set three-hour mark could still be safely repurposed into portion sizes and sold on the salad bar or in the grab-and-go section.

In a pilot, New Seasons salvaged 20,000 pounds of chicken; reduced CO2 emissions by about 23.4 metric tons; and saved 9.4M gallons of water—all while generating a new revenue stream from what had gone to compost before.

“Our gap in understanding the problem had been holding us back from innovation. But once we saw the scale of the issue and looked at it with intention, the [problem-solving] ideas and excitement from our team exploded.

“We started thinking about repurposing in general and how we would do this as we look at what is most often wasted and costing us the most,” Petty says.

The next target was berries; a highly perishable product, especially once they are confined in packaging. As the berries neared the latest date New Seasons would normally sell them, produce workers pulled the best of them from their containers and moved them to the salad bar. As with the chickens, the team was able to retain the fruit’s value longer simply by presenting and selling it in a different way.

The grocer is thinking about what else to upcycle and how, maybe repurposing surplus bread into bread pudding, or excess freshly ground beef into taco meat.

But first the cross-department team is turning its attention to finetuning upstream tactics to prevent surplus or the chance for spoilage in the first place. It goes back to better tracking and improved ordering practices.

A tool called Phood leverages artificial intelligence and computer vision to trace inventory. Phood is proving instrumental in New Season’s deli case and hot bars, as the camera can track what’s sold there, serving a similar function as price look up codes (PLU) attached to individual pieces of fruit or say a zucchini or eggplant pulled from a bin.

But the AI-powered technology keeps tabs on many details and provides real-time data, for instance on how much food is put out when, and what times of day the most waste is created, ultimately serving to inform production and ordering practices.

New Seasons signed on to The Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment (PCFWC), composed of retailers and food producers working to halve the region’s food waste by 2030 against a 2015 baseline.

Petty says that PCFWC has provided a way to share and test ideas and tap into environmental data that New Seasons could not produce on its own.

Businesses are especially interested in learning about their peers’ staff training and engagement practices, notes Tara McNerney, Circular Supply Chain manager for the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, World Wildlife Fund.

“There's recognition that while the initiative may need to start with corporate policies prioritizing food waste reduction, to implement changes at the store level there needs to be robust staff support, education, and engagement around food waste,” she says.

This includes getting staff buy-in, which begins with clearly stating why business is working to reduce food waste and how employees play a critical role.

The Center for EcoTechnology (CET) provides technical assistance to New Seasons and other retailers who signed on to the PCFWC. 

Bandwidth to pay attention to wasted food is top of the list of pain points, notes Lorenzo Macaluso, chief of growth, Center for EcoTechnology.

“Food businesses were hit hard by COVID, and staffing shortages persist. We help them see value in focusing on reducing food waste to benefit the environment and their bottom line. Then we help them advance, when they have the capacity.  New Seasons is an example of this.

“The carbon and water savings they realized are great environmental benefits, and to turn items that had been a cost to compost into a new revenue-producing product is a real win,” Macaluso says.

Emerging policies suggest that food industries will soon be required to take action. The United Nations set a target to reduce retail and consumer food waste by 50% by 2030.  In the U.S. the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, and Food and Drug Administration have

joined forces

to prioritize food waste reduction. And California’s retailers are required to donate unsold food.

More retailers are joining companies like New Seasons to stay ahead of legislation through voluntary actions. Kroger set a goal to hit zero food waste by 2025. Walmart, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize, and Aldi committed to halve their food waste by 2030. (They are at ranging points along their way. Walmart for example hit 12% reduction by the end of 2022, and Kroger is at 50%, according to its website).

As regulatory and competitive pressures tighten, more grocers are paying attention to the writings on the wall and gearing up to find answers to the food waste problem.

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like