At a time when the grocery industry is pressed to tackle its food waste problems, the Cingari Family Markets under the ShopRite banner in Connecticut has turned to an innovative solution through local partnerships.
The 12-store chain, which is part of the Wakefern Cooperative, is composting about 100 tons of organic material per month — roughly the weight of a 767 Jumbo Jet, Dominick Cingari, the grocer’s sustainability expert and fourth-generation member of the grocery company, said in an interview. That material is then converted into energy that powers homes and businesses across Connecticut.
Its compost-to-energy efforts, which have accelerated over the past few years, have played a key role alongside inventory management processes and contributed to the grocer cutting waste by over 60% while also opening three stores during the last 11 years, Cingari said.
Food waste hierarchy
The first priority for the Cingari ShopRite is to reduce the amount of food waste created.
“The best way to deal with food waste is to not have to waste in the first place,” Cingari said.
To that end, the grocer places a heavy emphasis on its inventory management, which relies on computer-generated ordering as well as manual input to “make sure we have the right items, the right quantity of items on the shelves at the right times,” Cingari said.
Even with that, food waste is a reality of the business, so the grocer has a hierarchical plan for how it handles items that are going bad.
First, the grocer provides edible food to local food banks and charities, Cingari said, noting that the business is looking to partner with a food rescue nonprofit that distributes food to homeless shelters. Tapping into its community roots, the grocer has been donating food for more than 50 years, Cingari said.
If the item is non-edible and biodegradable, then it gets composted.
“We want to donate everything we can to the food banks and charities,” Cingari. “Why is it composted in the first place if it can be donated to somebody?”
Cingari Shoprite has been composting in all of its stores since 2012 when the grocer started using a traditional composting method where the waste was hauled to a compost facility.
From food waste to compost and energy
A few years ago, prior to COVID, the president of the Connecticut Food Association called Cingari to suggest a tour of Quantum Biopower, Connecticut’s first anaerobic digester.
“I was so impressed, because with the traditional composting method, as those biodegradable materials break down it releases methane gas naturally into the atmosphere,” Cingari said. “And we know methane gas is not good for the environment — it’s a greenhouse gas.”
Instead, Quantum speeds up the process of breaking down the organic material through a digester and then captures the methane gas that’s released to power homes and businesses, Cingari said.
When the process is finished, there’s a resulting nutrient-rich soil from the composted material. The grocer is planning to soon start selling that soil in 5-pound bags at its stores, Cingari said.
“It kind of completes the whole cycle from growing [the food] in the ground to going back into the ground,” Cingari said. “I mean, that’s amazing.”
The composting initiative was more expensive in the beginning, Cingari said, due to upfront work like planning, researching, training associates and signage, but the grocer has become more efficient.
“But we’ve always worked to make the processes more efficient,” Cingari said. “It’s always evolving. What could we do better?”
Now, the composting is part of the normal workflow, Cingari said. The switch from traditional composting to Quantum allowed for the inclusion of some packaged material, like salad bags, which would normally have to get unpacked, providing cost savings.
“Is it a profit center for the company? No, it’s not. But we do it because it’s we want to do the right thing,” Cingari said.
In the future, Cingari said having more locations that handle compost-to-energy would not only lower transportation costs but also lower vehicle emissions related to the transportation: “If there were more Quantums available in different regions of the country or different counties, then you would have less transportation costs.”
Supporting local businesses
While Cingari “fell in love with Quantum,” there was one main issue: the grocer didn’t have a way to get its biodegradable material transported to Quantum.
Through the Connecticut Food Association, Cingari got introduced to Blue Earth, which handles that transportation for a fee.
Because Blue Earth was a startup, Cingari offered one store to test the partnership at the beginning of the pandemic with the idea that more stores would get added on as Blue Earth grew its operating market.
“I didn't want to put pressure on Blue Earth as a small startup and say, ‘Hey, you need to take all of my stores or I won't do business.’ I said to them the opposite,” Cingari said.
“They're a small, local business. At one point we were a small local business. We're a family-run company, so we always try to help entrepreneurs and small businesses,” he said.
That arrangement helped Blue Earth figure out where to expand its operations to. Now, all 12 of the Cingari Cingari ShopRite stores are partnered up with Blue Earth.
Proudly sharing progress
ShopRite has found that its waste-to-energy work helps it connect with its shoppers and also help boost employee morale: “I think people feel better about themselves for doing something positive for the environment,” Cingari said.
ShopRite has signs in its stores telling customers that food waste equaling the weight of a 767 Jumbo Jet is not going into a landfill. The grocer’s dietitians also help spread the word about the compost-to-energy initiative, Cingari said.
Every month, Cingari tracks each store’s amount of composted material, uses a formula to calculate how many pounds of CO2 were diverted from landfills and posts that number in the break rooms and at the time clock, Cingari said.
“When you get your associates to buy into the program, they become invested in it and it becomes a little exciting and they know what's going on,” Cingari said. “I've had contests with store against store [with a] pizza party as a prize. When you do those types of things and you make it fun, I think we all benefit.”
“We’re very proud of what we compost,” Cingari said.