Supermarkets Moving Toward Zero Food Waste (2022)

January 15, 2020

Written by SmartSense | Food Safety, Supply Chain

Food retailers are gatekeepers to the U.S. food system. They influence what products travel from farms to shelves, and help determine consumer shopping trends. For these reasons especially, grocers are increasingly under pressure to reduce their food waste footprint. For instance, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) recently took the industry by surprise, grading the country’s top 10 largest supermarkets on their waste reduction efforts. Only three got an A. The rest got bad publicity.

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That’s understandable. Supermarkets are responsible for 10% of all U.S. food waste – that’s 43 billion pounds annually. According to the Guardian, the food supply chain wastes 45% of all produce, 35% of seafood, 30% of cereals, and 20% of meat and dairy products every year. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food containers and packaging make up 23% of landfill waste.

“Every year, American consumers, businesses, and farms spends $218 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten.” Source:

Chris Cochran, executive director of Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED), estimates that the amount of food wasted by the retail sector represents $18.2 billion a year in lost value.” It’s a huge problem,” he says, “but solvable. Food businesses can turn food waste into profit.”

Despite the CBD report card, some leading supermarkets are innovating ways to reduce food waste. Because of their direct links with farmers, processors and consumers, powerful companies like Kroger and Walmart can influence every facet of the supply chain to create positive change.

Supermarkets That Are Making a Difference

Walmart and Kroger are two of the world’s largest food retailers that recently joined a new initiative to engage their supply chains to reduce food waste. Called 10x20x30, this private sector commitment advances the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 12.3, which calls for a 50% reduction in food loss and waste by 2030 worldwide.

10x20x30’s founding partners include 5 of the 10 largest food retailers in the world, the world’s 2nd largest food service provider, and leading food retailers in regions such as Africa and the Middle East: AEON, Ahold Delhaize, IKEA Food, Kroger, METRO AG, Pick n Pay, The Savola Group, Sodexo, Tesco, and Walmart. Combined, these participants operate in more than 80 countries.

Supermarkets Moving Toward Zero Food Waste (1)


Here in the U.S., Kroger is leveraging its tremendous size, influence, and distribution operations to divert otherwise wasted food to reduce hunger and food insecurity. Its Zero Hunger, Zero Waste initiative, launched in September 2018, also aims to eliminate food waste by 2025. Kroger is partnering with Feeding America to identify opportunities to distribute surplus inventory to food banks.

(Video) This Zero-Waste Grocery Store Should Be Everywhere

The mega-chain also spent the last couple of years conducting a comprehensive analysis to help management better understand and measure food waste and devise strategies to solve it. For example, Kroger is planning to automate its in-store ordering systems across key departments to reduce over-ordering of highly perishable items. Their commitment also extends to eliminating plastic bags from its stores by 2025.

Once Kroger gets a handle on reducing loss internally, the company will then turn its focus to the supply chain and take steps to influence suppliers and customers. To help achieve its goal, executive management established a $10 million innovation fund to support public policy solutions.


Walmart is reducing food waste by means of various innovations that can serve as inspiration for other retailers:

  • Simplifying food expiration labels: In 2016, the company started to require all of its food suppliers to adopt standardized expiration date labels that divide food into two categories: “Best if Used By” for nonperishable products, and “Use By” for food that can spoil.
  • Saving eggs: Walmart found a way to replace individual cracked eggs so that their stores can still sell the entire carton, preventing millions of eggs from being thrown out every year.

Implementing new technologies: Walmart’s Eden will help the company save $2 billion in food waste over the next five years by improving the quality and flow of fresh groceries from farm to shelf.

The 10x20x30 initiative aims to halve rates of food loss and waste by 2030. Source:

Kroger and Walmart have the power and money to catalyze change. But grocery chains don’t have to be national leaders to start making a difference at their own scale. Let’s take a look at some innovative practices to reduce food waste that companies can adopt to fit the size of their operations.

Turn “Ugly” Produce Into an Opportunity

Supermarket management sets impossibly high cosmetic standards for food products. Even slightly “imperfect” fruits and vegetables (asymmetrical, discolored, too small, or even too large) are usually rejected at the loading dock and never make it to the produce bin. The USDA estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion annually due to these so-called “flaws,” even if the fruits and vegetables are of high quality and nutritional value.

To curb this unreasonable food waste, Walmart is experimenting with selling “ugly” vegetables at discount prices. Simple as that. It takes no more time than displaying conventional produce. Better yet, Walmart is making a profit on sales to customers who value sustainability.

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Sell Upcycled Food Products at a High Profit Margin

Some food manufacturers are creating food products from ugly produce for the retail market. These items can be advertised to health-conscious consumers looking for nutrient-dense foods. Moreover, consumers are willing to pay a higher price for products with an “added value,” such as they currently do with organic, vegan, and sustainable foods. The result? Both manufacturers and retailers reap more profits.

Going beyond rejected produce, many companies are transforming food waste into new products that grocers can sell at a premium price. For instance:

  • Barnana upcycles over-ripe bananas and turns them into tasty snacks.
  • Runamok Maple shares resources with breweries and distilleries to create barrel-aged and infused maple syrups.
  • Now Foods uses wasted produce such as orange peels to create vitamin supplements.

Just as gluten-free and organic products get their own shelf space, a section of an aisle or refrigerator case can be reserved to showcase “upcycled” foods for a growing customer segment dedicated to recycling.

Prevent or Minimize Perishable Food Surpluses

Investing in new technology can reduce excess inventory and the number of wasted perishables. Advancements in automation and software have made inventory management scalable across more SKUs and product types. Companies can set KPIs related to food loss and waste, track performance against those metrics, and adapt their processes to improve performance.

For example, Whole Foods and Target in the U.S. are now using software to input their store layouts so that deliveries can be organized in shelving sequence. This practice eliminates intermediaries between the distribution warehouse and the retail floor.

After taking an in-depth look at its perishables departments, Stop & Shop discovered that piling produce in bins high caused greater damage and labor costs. Finding new ways to display produce while reducing stock levels ended up boosting customer satisfaction because their produce stays fresh for longer. This practice also helped Stop & Shop reach an estimated savings of $100 million per year.

Partner with Consumers

Food waste by consumers has escalated, while only 3% attach a social stigma to throwing away uneaten food. Changing habits is a long-term endeavor, but food retailers can play a crucial role in educating consumers to cut household food waste.

Research shows that consumers view supermarkets as a source of guidance for reducing food waste. Stores can offer consumers free branded food magazines that share waste reduction tips and recipes to utilize leftovers. Supermarkets can also sponsor and team up with chefs to demonstrate how to make meals with leftover ingredients. Dinner events that feature food made from discarded scraps get significant social media attention and are a great way of educating and engaging customers.

(Video) Smartway : our solutions against foodwaste in supermarkets

Aim for Zero Waste

Some entrepreneurs see a solution in the biggest store change imaginable: designing waste out of retail altogether by creating what are known as zero-waste grocery stores. Over the last decade, some retailers also started rethinking their waste footprint and designed stores that encourage customers to bring their own containers.

The Filling Station In New York, for example, has dedicated its entire store to selling olive oil, vinegar, salt, and beer that customers purchase using refillable containers. While this refill model, which emphasizes reduced packaging waste, has worked for specialty shops, larger grocery stores are trying to figure out how to successfully apply this model to a zero-waste design.

Zero-waste saves businesses money by reducing disposal, labor and energy costs. The concept is better for the environment because it avoids wasting water, oil and other natural resources used to grow and deliver food. It also helps keep oceans free of plastic pollution and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Champions 12.3, a global coalition dedicated to tackling food waste, analyzed 700 food manufacturing, retail, and service companies in 17 countries and found that half of those that invested in measures to reduce food waste saw at least a 14-fold return on those investments. Even more interesting was the finding that big payoffs came from small changes – such as consumer education and clear date labeling – that helped minimize food surpluses before the consumption stage.

Although addressing food waste has made some progress over the past few years, the grocery industry still needs to shift its focus to reducing supply chain and in-store waste. Maintaining the status quo by focusing only 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.

The grocery sector would be smart to publicly embrace solutions that include concrete, measurable deadlines for zero waste and comprehensive prevention programs. Those programs would involve better ordering practices, clearer date labels, improved tracking and distribution technology, promotion of imperfect produce, and minimizing daily waste of meat and dairy.

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Topics: Food Safety Supply Chain

(Video) i tried to shop zero waste at a regular grocery store | meal plan w/ me 📔✍🏻


What do supermarkets do with their food waste? ›

Grocery Gains (and Losses)

Their 2020 data shows that the grocer generated 288,966 tons of food waste and diverted 44.7 percent from the landfill (up from 27.1 percent in 2017). The would-be food waste was sent to animal food operations, composting facilities and anaerobic digesters.

Why do supermarkets throw away so much food? ›

When a sell-by date passes it doesn't mean that the food is unsafe to eat, however, many people still think that they have to toss it. Grocery stores sometimes throw away food simply because it's getting close to the sell-by date. There are several companies working to reclaim out of date food.

Can there be zero food waste? ›

Very few people are able to completely eliminate waste from their lives. Rather, zero-waste cooking is part of a greater movement to live sustainably and reduce your impact on the planet. It's about doing the best you can with what resources you have available. There are many ways to live a zero-waste lifestyle.

How much food is wasted in Singapore supermarkets? ›

In 2019, 744,000 tonnes of food waste were generated in Singapore and only 18% were recycled.

What happens to unsold food in supermarkets? ›

Once food hits its sell-by date, many markets donate products to food banks or sell them to salvage stores. As darkness falls, your local supermarket becomes a hive of activity. From canned vegetables and salad dressings to fresh fruits and deli meats, countless items are removed from shelves by night staff.

What does Tesco do with waste food? ›

In 2016, Tesco launched the UK's biggest food redistribution scheme, Community Food Connection (CFC), through which surplus food from Tesco stores is donated daily to local charities and community groups. Olio will collect where charities are unable to or we don't have charities available.

Why do grocery stores throw away food instead of donating? ›

The first reason is liability.

Many vendors mistakenly believe they'll get sued for providing food that gets somebody sick, even if they think that food is safe. The vendors may decide giving away their leftovers isn't worth the legal risk.

What does Costco do with unsold food? ›

Costco locations worldwide donate edible food to food banks and other nonprofits in their local communities. Donation programs vary by location and country.

Why do companies throw away food instead of donating? ›

That is because California lacks a law to protect food donors, no matter how good their intentions. A restaurateur who provides food for the needy can be held liable if someone becomes ill.

Why do stores throw away food instead of donating? ›

We talk a lot about how grocery stores often end up with surplus food and how much of that food ends up in the trash. That surplus can happen because of human error like over-ordering, changing consumer habits, low popularity of an item, bad weather leading to less foot traffic in stores and more.

Where does food waste go? ›

In the worst case scenario, food waste is collected and then either disposed of in landfill or incinerated. Currently, in the U.S, a whooping 63 million tons of food is not recycled or recovered, but instead heads to landfill, is incinerated, or remains unharvested (REFED,2016).

How much do supermarkets contribute to food waste? ›

UNEP's “Food Waste Index Report 2021” estimates food waste from households, retailers and foodservice totals 931 million tons each year. The biggest culprits are consumers: nearly 61% of food waste occurs at the household level, while 26% comes from foodservice and 13% comes from retail.

How much meat do supermarkets throw away? ›

Supermarkets are responsible for 10% of all U.S. food waste – that's 43 billion pounds annually. According to the Guardian, the food supply chain wastes 45% of all produce, 35% of seafood, 30% of cereals, and 20% of meat and dairy products every year.


1. Waste Not News Episode 2: Food Waste at the Retail Level
(Divert NS)
2. Moving Towards Zero! Campaign that promotes local consumption and waste reduction
(Go Zero Waste)
3. Food Theory: How Long Could You SURVIVE Locked In A Grocery Store?
(The Food Theorists)
(How Debbie Saves)
5. Food Waste: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
6. Towards Zero Food Waste (Zero Waste 2020 Festival - Masterclass)
(Zero Waste Revolution)

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