Supermarkets, vendors and manufacturers step up their efforts to increase sustainability and help the environment.
On average, that is how much organic waste is produced daily by the typical American supermarket in the form of corn husks, moldy strawberries, watermelon rinds, pineapple cores, outer cabbage leaves, wilted flowers, moldy cheese, stale bread, day-old pizza and other perishable items not fit for human consumption.
In most cases it ends up in the local landfill, adding to a litany of growing problems including increased carbon footprints, greenhouse gases and global warming.
“By some estimates as much as 40 percent of the food we produce may be wasted, i.e., ending up in a landfill,” says Andrew Harig, senior director of sustainability, tax and trade at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the supermarket industry trade association based in Arlington, Va. “The U.S. has announced a national goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030, a goal supported by the food industry. The entire supply chain has a role to play, and FMI will continue to pursue policies that encourage environmental, societal and business innovation.”
At Ahold USA, company officials have already seen the light—literally. The company’s Stop & Shop New England Division has built a Green Energy Facility at its Freetown, Mass. distribution center featuring an anaerobic digester that converts garbage into electricity, supplying 40 percent of the distribution center’s energy needs. The energy actually goes into the grid of Eversource, the local utility, and Ahold gets a credit for the power created.
“We are taking the inedible food at our New England Division stores—95 tons a day at some 200 stores in Massachusetts, northern Connecticut and Rhode Island—putting it in the digester and converting it to biogas, which in turn runs a generator that creates the electricity,” says Marissa Nelson, senior vice president of responsible retailing and healthy living at Ahold USA, based in Quincy, Mass.
Ground was broken on the Green Energy Facility, the first of its kind on the East Coast according to Ahold USA officials, in April 2015, with the first pilot test of stores conducted in January/February of this year. Built on a corner of the 1.1 million square-foot warehouse, the Green Energy Facility has the look of a mini oil refinery, with its series of large tanks connected by elevated pipelines.
“We worked really closely with Eversource,” Nelson says. “Plus a lot of state and federal agencies helped us because this was a first of its kind, especially in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where it is new ground. We received a lot of help about getting the right permits, etc. Eversource coming to the table to assist us really helped us out. It has been a great partnership.”
Government can help the industry by examining the infrastructure that is available for diverting food waste away from landfills and promoting more productive uses, Harig says. “Tax incentives, grants and education directed at building out this infrastructure could play a major role in helping states and localities build out the kind of facilities necessary to make a true dent in food waste sent to landfill.”
Tax incentives were key in helping Stop & Shop with its digester.
“We did get some tax credits that frankly were quite helpful, or we would have had to think differently about going forward with this,” Nelson says. However, the advantages definitely outweighed the costs. “We are delivering as far as energy reduction. We just had our second quarter numbers and saw a nice reduction in our Freetown energy consumption,” she says.
By May, the digester was handling the organic waste from the entire New England Division.
“We are running non-stop right now, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a few hours taken out for maintenance and cleaning,” says Reuben Zacharakus-Jutz, Green Energy Facility plant manager for Divert, the Concord, Mass.-based firm that built and operates the digester for Stop & Shop.
Each Ahold USA store has a dedicated “Green Captain” employee whose tasks include monitoring recycling and waste reduction efforts at store level, including food bank donations. Nelson notes that the Green Energy Facility has not impacted Stop & Shop’s food donations, which are still first priority, although it may have cut into organic waste diverted to pig farmers.
The digester has made work easier for store employees who in the past had to manually open and separate plastic packaging from the organic matter. Now they simply toss the bag into the large blue bins in the stockroom dedicated for the Green Energy Facility.
“These are different bins than what we started with,” Zacharakus-Jutz says. “We went to a blue base so that it doesn’t get accidentally sent out as a black pallet. We added a plastic liner that doesn’t break down under the juicy materials and that stays more clean in the back of the store.” He n
otes that each bin holds from 800 to 1,000 pounds of waste and gets picked up daily.
Arriving at the digester, the bins are dumped into a hopper, which feeds a masher. Similar to a giant blender, the masher uses hydraulic friction to separate the plastic packaging from organic matter. Heavy organic materials that cannot be broken down are separated and eventually sent to a waste-to-energy incinerator, while the plastics are recycled.
Water is added to the remaining organic material to make a “milkshake” to feed the anaerobic bacteria in the digester, and water use is minimal. “All of the drains in this facility go into a sump and we pump that water in and use it as batch water,” Zacharakus-Jutz says. “We are only using a very small amount of potable water per day, and that is only used for cleaning; the rest is all gray water.”
The milkshake goes into a 110,000 gallon holding tank, which feeds the 1.2-million-gallon reactor tank in small batches. “The microorganisms consume the food and create a biogas that we collect at the top of the digester. That gets fed to a natural gas 16-cylinder internal combustion engine that makes the electricity,” Zacharakus-Jutz says.
Finally, a centrifuge is used to pull out the third byproduct from the digester—“soil amendment,” commonly known as compost. Ahold USA officials are looking at different uses for the compost, including using it in local parks departments and even selling it in the stores.
On the West Coast, Divert runs a similar digester facility for the Ralphs division of Kroger Co., Nelson says.
When it comes to sustainability, California retailers face stricter standards than those operating in other states.
Sprouts Farmers Market has teamed with Quest Resource Holding Corp., a Plano, Texas-based sustainability, recycling and resource management firm, to help it in its efforts to roll out its Organics Recycling Program to its approximately 100 Golden State stores.
“In 2013, we decided we needed to make a serious commitment to reducing our environmental footprint,” says Carlos Rojas, director of CSR Program and senior counsel for Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market. “We started looking at different partners to help us in this effort, and Quest really rose to the top in our search.”
Under Sprouts’ program, any organic product that is no longer saleable or cannot be donated is collected and diverted, either for composting or animal feed. Meat is sent to a rendering plant where it is repurposed.
“Through composting and food donations we really get rid of most of the product from our stores,” Rojas says. “By the end of the year we expect to be at a 60 percent diversion rate. Next year we’ll dive into it even further to see how we can reduce that other 40 percent.”
Reducing environmental footprint makes both good stewardship and economic sense.
“Sustainability is actually the flagship of efficiency because inefficiency is not sustainable,” Rojas says. “As we are diverting all of this produce from our waste, we are also reducing our trash costs. We are able to right-size our stores because we are able to dramatically reduce trash pickups.”
To reduce energy consumption, Sprouts has instituted a Save Green program. “Save Green is a series of best practices or guidelines for our stores to follow. They are running much more efficiently with regards to water and energy conservation,” Rojas says.
Open meat and dairy cases have been fitted with night curtains to reduce overnight energy consumption, and early morning crews now only turn on a portion of the lights before the store opens for business.
“With those night curtains we’ve already seen a reduction in energy costs of five percent or more of our total energy costs. That is huge when you are talking about 250 stores chain-wide,” Rojas says.
Sprouts is also in discussion with leading solar and battery storage manufacturers to have such systems installed in select stores, Rojas says. Water consumption has been decreased by installing low-flow nozzles in the deli department, along with low-flow toilets in the restrooms.
“All of our new stores are built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards,” Rojas says. “We don’t go through the certification process with all of them, but all of them are certifiable LEED. They are basically green buildings.”
One of the biggest energy consumption costs—and contributor to carbon footprint—in the supermarket comes from the frozen and refrigerated cases. They can account for 50 percent or more of a supermarket’s electricity bill. Skogen’s Festival Foods, an operator of 24 supermarkets across Wisconsin, is turning that around by teaming with Honeywell, which has installed its Solstice N40 refrigerant in its new Menasha and Somers stores.
“One of the beauties of our new Solstice N40 refrigerant is that it is the lowest GWP (Global Warming Potential) refrigerant,” says Robert Kebby, global business manager, commercial refrigeration at Honeywell, based in Morris Plains, N.J. “It was initially designed as a replacement for 404 and N22 in existing stores, but is also great for new stores. It is a neat drop-in product for existing refrigerants.”
“By designing our refrigeration systems to work with Solstice N40, we expect to increase the energy efficiency of our Somers location by three percent or more when compared to our other Festival Foods locations,” says Mark Skogen, president and CEO of Festival Foods, based in De Pere, Wis. “That’s a big win for the environment, and it will lower our energy costs as well.”
Kebby says Solstice N40 can greatly reduce carbon footprint, and has already made a big impact. “We have 300,000 metric tons of CO2 savings with this product globally at the moment and it is growing every day,” he says. “That is like 68,000 passenger cars removed from the road, or about 750,000 less barrels of oil.”
Manufacturers are also stepping up to the plate to reduce their carbon footprint.
Portland Roasting Coffee consumes lots of energy roasting two million pounds of coffee per year that are sold in The Fresh Market, Earth Fare, Balducci’s and other upscale stores. When the Portland, Ore.-based company decided to upgrade its roasters with American-made Diedrich Roasters from Ponderay, Idaho, Diedrich officials put them in touch with Cool Energy, which created a Thermal Heat Engine, sort of a modern steam engine, that uses the heat generated by the roasting process to power the roaster and the entire premises.
“At some point on our packaging we hope to say we are the first roaster in the world to create its own power,” says Mark Stell, founder and managing partner of Portland Roasting Coffee.
“Theoretically, any roaster down the road could literal
ly be self-powering themselves,” Stell says. “That is really, really cutting edge and groundbreaking. This is an exciting opportunity, not just for coffee roasters, but for any company that produces heat in their process. It is a natural
for any manufacturer that has emission controls.”
Energy Trust of Oregon, a state-run incentive primarily for homeowners to make themselves more energy efficient, gave Portland Coffee a $20,000 grant towards the generator’s $70,000 purchase price, and Portland Roasting Coffee also worked with Heat is Power, a nonprofit promoting waste heat to power.
With its Pacific Northwest location and small 25,000 square-foot factory, Stell says more traditional green energy applications, like solar and windmills, were not practical. The first generator produces 25 kilowatts of power. Stell would like to eventually add three more generators, producing 100 kilowatts and store excess power in batteries to power the plant when the roasters are down. “We’re looking forward to the next five to 10 years,” he says. “I don’t know how realistic it is to say we could be off the grid, but our bills will only keep going down by adding new generators.”
New England is not exactly known for its endless sunshine, but that has not stopped The Country Hen organic egg farm from installing a 350,000-kilowatt solar panel system on the roofs of its henhouses. “That will produce enough power for us to run our main farm,” says Bob Beauregard, general manager of The Country Hen, based in Hubbardston, Mass. “The advantage is that because we are putting them on the roofs of the henhouses we are not taking up any additional real estate to build a solar farm.”
Beauregard says work is beginning on the installation and it will be up and running by early next summer.
Unlike other solar projects that feed into the grid, The Country Hen is using its to directly supply power for its feed mill, well pumps and other electrical motors, and expects to save about 195 barrels of oil annually. It is also installing a propane-based radiant heat system using water to heat the henhouse floors. “It is very efficient—as efficient as you can get—so we can maintain a consistent temperature, especially during our New England winters.”
The solar system should pay itself off within five years, Beauregard says. “After that, we will really start to see a savings in what we’re paying. I don’t think it will make a huge dent in the cost of a carton of eggs. This is more about clean, green power. We’re organic so we want to be as green as we can with the natural resources that we have,” he says.
The Country Hen will likely advertise its solar conversion via the Farm News written on its half-dozen carton of eggs sold at Whole Foods and other stores. “Our hope is that we will positively impact sales,” Beauregard says. “The greener we get, the more loyalty we build with customers looking towards the environment and the organic side of the coin.”
In Minerva, Ohio, family-owned Minerva Dairy has been churning out its famed Amish-style butter and cheese since 1894. That requires lots of water, especially during the two-hour cleanup process at the end of the day when up to 80 percent of the daily water is used, says Adam Mueller, president.
While Ohio’s water supply is plentiful and inexpensive, it is high in iron. Traditionally, that requires treatment through a water softener, and the use of salt, so 18 months ago Minerva Dairy officials made an environmentally friendly switch.
“We put in a water polisher, which uses reverse osmosis to take the iron out and create distilled water,” Mueller says. “Distilled water allows us to use 37 percent less water on a daily basis because it takes less chemicals in our cleaning process to get the same washing strength.” That is saving 10 million gallons of water annually, he adds.
“We are working toward further reducing our footprint by utilizing water that comes off the cheese making process,” Mueller says.
Look for nutrient recovery to be the next big thing, says Mike Schmid, the chief marketing and operations officer of Renewable Nutrients, a Pinehurst, N.C.-based firm that specializes in phosphorus recovery. Widely used in fertilizers, phosphorus is a key nutrient necessary to plant and animal survival that passes out of the body through excretion. Most commercial phosphorus comes from phosphate mines in the U.S., China and Morocco, and experts say that supply may be exhausted in 100 to 300 years.
“Our plan with Renewable Nutrients is to recover that phosphorus from both agricultural waste streams at pig and chicken farms, and also from human waste, and then resell it again on the open market so it can be reused,” Schmid says.
Renewable Nutrients uses a process chemical process called Quick Wash that can pull phosphorous out of sewage plants and anaerobic digesters, like the one in use at Stop & Shop. “We manipulate the waste stream to chemically to precipitate out the phosphorus, which comes out as liquid calcium phosphate, which can then be dried,” Schmid says.
Capitalizing on Energy Efficiency
It takes money to save energy.
That is a big drawback for many retailers closely watching their bottom lines, but teaming with an investment firm can help.
“The biggest hurdle in energy efficiency is capital,” says Steven Wagner, vice president with LCTA Group (Leading Center for Technology Advancement), a San Antonio-based investment company specializing in energy-efficiency upgrades, including lighting, controls, motors and other in-store functions. “Our whole premise is really helping to increase the adoption rate of efficient technologies.”
LCTA bridges the gap between suppliers, end users, building owners and tenants by providing the capital to make energy savings happen, Wagner says. The firm not only works with retailers, but also manufacturers, distribution centers, hospitals and other institutions.
“We don’t charge the retailer for anything,” Wagner says. “We are a pure investment firm. We pay for 100 percent of the assessment, validation, all the assets, and it is non-debt. We take all the risks by assessing, validating and implementing it.”
If LCTA determined that 100,000 kilowatt hours of energy at a store could be saved, for example, the firm would invest all the resources and capital in making that happen and then get paid on a percentage of the savings. “We guarantee the end users a percentage of the savings at the prevailing energy rate. From a financial perspective, because it doesn’t hit their books and balance sheet and because it is 100 percent validated, the retailer does not carry the risk, and we get the reward if we are successful.”
For more information, visit lctagroup.com.
Savings… in the Bag
McDonald’s restaurants used to have a sign outside stating how many billions of hamburgers were served.
Now that it has saved more than one billion bags, Ahold USA might be wise to do something similar outside its Stop & Shop, Giant Food Landover, Giant Food Carlisle and Martin’s stores—tallying an ongoing count of how many plastic and paper bags it is preventing from ending up in landfills, dumps and incinerators. The com
pany, now a division of Ahold-Delhaize, committed to the bag reduction milestone back in 2011 when it implemented its Responsible Retailing Strategy seeking to divert 90 percent or more of its waste from landfills by 2020. It reached the billion bag reduction portion of its goal this past summer.
“We accomplished our goal by better bagging, packing more items per bag and promoting reusable bags,” says Marissa Nelson, senior vice president of responsible retailing and healthy living at Ahold USA in Quincy, Mass. “We literally have tracked this. Our auditors have shown that we have eliminated one billion bags from being used and ending up in landfills. We did a lot of training with our associates at store level and got our division presidents into doing videos and challenges.”
As further proof that the effort is working, Nelson says Ahold USA has witnessed a definite decline in bag orders per store.
This fall, Ahold USA celebrated the milestone by giving away reusable bags to associates at support offices, along with store-level efforts.
“Every store gave away 100 reusable bags to shoppers,” Nelson says. “We’re going to thank our store-level associates as well for what they’ve done to help us with their bagging expertise, increasing the number of items per bag and ensuring that our plastic bags can hold it. We are going to print this milestone on our plastic bags and even mention it on our shopping carts.”
Other retailers are also doing their part to ensure their bags do not end up as part of the waste stream. Skogen’s Festival Foods, an operator of 24 stores across Wisconsin, runs Bag to Benches, where plastic bags returned by shoppers are made into benches and other plastic lumber products. Shoppers simply deposit their used bags in the Bags to Benches box outside of each store.
“It takes 3,900 plastic bags to make a bench, and all of our stores have at least two of these recycled benches,” says Nina Winistorfer, community involvement coordinator, for Skogen’s Festival Foods, based in De Pere, Wis.
The bags are placed on trucks going back to the Supervalu distribution center where they are compacted into bales. “From there they are sent to a company in Chicago called Trex where they are melted down and turned into wood alternatives,” Winistorfer says. “They not only go into benches, but also decking products, picnic tables, boards, etc. We collect over 20,000 bags a year, so we have a lot of bags that are donated,” she says.