FRAMINGHAM, MASS. >> Almost two years ago, Massachusetts passed a commercial food-waste ban, prohibiting businesses and institutions that dispose a ton or more of waste per week from dumping it into landfills or incinerating it.
Since then, area grocery store chains have gotten more creative in efforts to become waste-free.
In April, Stop and Shop opened a green energy facility next to the company's distribution center in Freetown, the second of its kind and the first of its kind on the East Coast, according to Phil Tracey, spokesman for Stop and Shop New England.
Every food item that cannot be donated to food pantries is brought to the facility that uses anaerobic digestion to turn the waste into a biogas that powers 40 percent of the 1.1-million-square-foot distribution center.
Anaerobic digestion is a process in which "microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen," According to the American Biogas Council website. The products of the anaerobic digestion are biogas, which is primarily methane and carbon dioxide, and a dry material that can be used for compost.
Stop and Shop donates the compost material to farms.
Prior to the green energy facility's construction, Stop and Shop trucks used to drop items off at stores and then came back to the distribution center empty, Tracey said. Now, the trucks come back full of approximately 95 tons of food a day to be converted into energy and compost material from 208 of its 212 stores in New England. Employees have not yet found an effective way to bring waste from the Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket stores to the facility.
"We're literally taking food that would have ended up in a landfill and turning it into energy," Tracey said.
Implementing the green energy facility was intended to help the company meet its "goal of being landfill free in 2020," which Tracey said is a "lofty goal," but it is already 88 percent there.
He added that the company is "proud to be leading the food waste management crusade," and hoping that "other retailers in general follow suit."
Stop and Shop also recycles "enough cardboard to save 1.8 million trees a year," Tracey said, and since 2011 has recycled "enough plastic bags to circle the earth three times."
"We're always looking for ways to enhance old initiatives as well as add new ones," Tracey said.
The company has even found a way to recycle waxed corrugated boxes, which cannot be recycled with the wax on them.
Employees ship the boxes to India, where a company peels off the wax to make candles, then ships the boxes back to Stop and Shop for employees to recycle.
All of these initiatives cost the company money, Tracey said, but it is worth it because "we look at it as an investment in the environment."
Roche Bros. donates most of its food waste through a partnership with Lovin' Spoonfuls, a food recovery organization that collects unused food from grocery stores, wholesalers and farmers to distribute to food pantries.
"What comes out of our store today is going into some sort of kitchen," said Jeff Dinneen, facilities manager at Roche Bros.
The remainder of inedible waste is donated to pig farmers or a compost facility.
"Nothing is going into the trash," he said.
Roche Bros. employees also recycle all cardboard, and are working on a way to divert paper, plastics and glass from landfills.
"We can't cure the world, but we can do our part here at Roche Bros.," said Dineen.
According to the Hannaford website, 63 percent of the company's waste is recycled, and 40 percent of Hannaford stores recycle food waste.
Whole Foods is currently diverting 83 percent of its waste from landfills through food bank partnerships and composting, according to its website. Its goal is to, in 2016, become a zero-waste company, which is "defined in the waste industry as diverting more than 90% of waste from landfill or incineration."
The Big Y's website says that "if it can be recycled, we recycle it." All of its Massachusetts stores and nine of its Connecticut stores convert a total of 2,500 tons of food waste annually "into high-nutrition fertilizer" for crops.
In a statement, a representative from Shaw's/Star Market said the company's "goal is to minimize waste and sell through or use as much of the perishable and non-perishable products in our stores."
The company donates food to food banks through food bank partnerships, and diverts from landfills all "produce and other organic material that is non-sellable, usable, or unfit for human consumption" by recycling it through local farmers, according to the statement.
Representatives from the Market Basket and Price Chopper could not be reached and had no information on their websites about their food waste practices.
Wegmans focuses a lot on its "food print," said sustainability manager Jason Wadsworth, a play on the term "footprint."
Wegmans, he said, is part of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Food Recovery Challenge and bases its sustainability methods on the "EPA hierarchy for food recovery."
The first step, he said, is focusing on "source reduction" which is to "not waste things in the first place."
For example, Wadsworth said, workers often used bruised, blemished or "ugly produce," that would likely not be chosen by shoppers, in prepared foods.
"We can work around the blemish or the bruise and still sell that product," Wadsworth said.
Wegmans also donates extra food to food pantries, he said. In 2015, Wegmans donated 14.5 million pounds of food.
In a pilot store, he said, employees are working on a way to also donate prepared foods, which is more difficult because of its quicker expiration.
"After feeding people comes feeding animals and industrial uses," such as composting and anaerobic digestion, Wadsworth said.
Eleven Wegmans stores are also partnered with Lawnhurst Farms and Noblehurst Farms in New York, where the stores send waste to be converted into energy by the farms' anaerobic digesters.
Currently, he said, Wegmans is diverting about 61 percent of waste from landfills and 70 out of 89 stores have food waste diversion programs.
The ultimate goal, he said is to "bring all of our stores under a diversion program."
Wegmans is also a member of the food waste reduction alliance, of which Wadsworth said he is the retail chairman.
"We're committed to not only our own company but helping with industry leading changes," he said.
Even with these grocery store initiatives in place, "It is estimated that 25-40 percent of the food that is grown, processed and transported in the United States will never be consumed," according to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance website.
It also says that "every year, approximately 40 million tons of food waste are sent to landfills in the United States."
"When food waste decomposes in a landfill, it generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide," said the website. "In fact, landfills are responsible for one-third of all methane emissions in the United States."
But with innovative efforts from these grocery stores to reduce the amount of waste in landfills, Wadsworth said, there is hope for a more sustainable future.