Grocery to landfill: Confronting what we waste

Talking about food waste isn't easy. While today's modern grocery stores are making a wide variety of foods incredibly accessible to many people (just think of how many kinds of cereal and produce you see in a Wegman's aisle alone), the rise of "big box" supermarkets also comes with a hefty price: more waste.

The United Nations estimates that more than one third of food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. For all the food that ends up on our kitchen tables, one good, perfectly edible portion makes it to the trash first.

And while it's not a new problem, the issue is becoming hard to ignore: In the U.S. alone, the amount of food we waste today is three times more than what we wasted 50 years ago.

Woman grocery shopping with food cart
Jason Todd | Getty Images

Supermarkets are a big factor in that change. In 1916, the first "modern" grocery store opened for business. Today, there are close to 65,000 grocery and drug stores nationwide.

The upside: food has become more accessible for people in urban and suburban environments. The downside: stores are now overstocked with more food than we (and they) know what to do with, with an environmental impact that's hard to ignore.

"In 2008, roughly 43 billion pounds of food was thrown out of grocery stores—that's about 10 percent of all food purchased in stores."

Unused food is sent to perish in landfills, making it the largest contributor to landfill waste in our country and a major producer of the greenhouse gas, methane. Now imagine all the food that goes to waste polluting the planet. It's an unappetizing thought and a real threat to the environment.

It's partly the nature of business: grocery stores are worried about what customers might think of empty shelves and barren displays, so they overcompensate with an abundance of food to boost sales. There are other factors too, like racing against 'best-before' and 'sell-by' dates and poor deliveries that make for seemingly unattractive produce.

Meanwhile, in 2008, roughly 43 billion pounds of food was thrown out of grocery stores—that's about 10 percent of all food purchased in stores. It's estimated that a whopping 1 in 7 truckloads of perishable items delivered to a grocery store is thrown out.

It's unlikely that an industry so large and complex will drastically change the way it operates immediately, but we need it to. We're beginning to see an interesting shift in secondary food markets in the U.S. that have the potential to reduce waste and the piles of food rotting in our landfills.

Supermarkets like Trader Joe's are implementing initiatives to address food waste, like a food donation program, where they donate "foods not fit to sell but safe for consumption" to local food banks and the homeless. Stores are cropping up around the country that sell produce deemed 'ugly', and food that has expired or is past its 'best-by' dates.

And in May, Whole Foods will launch its first budget, and green, grocery store for the chain. That means leftover food will be sent to food banks, scraps will be composted and it will have a much lower carbon footprint than other stores. This "experiment store" may be the way grocers will go in the future if it gets close to its goal of zero waste.

But for every grocer that's making an effort to change, there's another that has opted to ignore the issue at hand. This avoidance will no doubt have a lasting impact on the world around us.

For those grocers that resist change, they may begin to see a larger shift with consumers relying less on them and finding their own alternatives to this issue. For example, more companies are beginning to sell direct to consumer rather than dealing with the grocer's inefficient supply chain.

Getting food direct to customers faster means more time for people to consume the food versus letting the food expire on grocery shelves, where they will inevitably make it to landfills.

And for consumers with unused food at home, there are options to consider before throwing it away. Is it still edible? Find a local shelter to donate it to. Can it be composted?

Even if you live in an urban environment, you may have the option to safely compost food and reduce the volume of food waste that would otherwise make its way to a landfill.

Do you need everything in your shopping cart? Maybe we need to recondition ourselves and change our perceptions on what we actually need—and will—consume.

There are multiple ways we can tackle food waste, and while mindful eating and purchasing is a start, we also need to recognize that the fault doesn't solely lie with us as individual consumers. The grocery store system needs to change before our supermarkets and landfills look like one in the same.

Commentary by Michael Wystrach, CEO and co-founder of Freshly.

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