Supermarkets

Supermarkets and grocers typically generate food wastecardboard, bottles & cans (and other Single Stream items), waxed cardboard, and shrink wrap, all of which are recyclable or compostable. In addition, many supermarkets offer grab-and-go food options.  Similar to restaurant takeout, these often generate large quantities of packaging and other single-use materials that may not be accepted for recycling through a typical single stream program in Massachusetts. Our Guide for Reducing Waste From Takeout and Delivery Meals offers tips to help your business save money, eliminate unnecessary waste, and purchase grab-and-go packaging materials that can be reused, recycled, or composted. This guide follows the Recycle Smart MA guidance as these consumer-facing materials are recycled or disposed of in a residential setting. 

Diverting Food Waste

Grocery stores that dispose of one ton or more of food waste each week are subject to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) commercial organics waste ban, which requires businesses and institutions to divert this material from disposal. Effective November 1, 2022, the MassDEP is lowering the threshold for the commercial organics ban so that it applies to supermarkets generating one-half ton or more food waste per week. To project food waste generation rates, businesses can visit the RecyclingWorks Food Waste Estimation Guide, which provides industry specific tools for Supermarkets. There are numerous resources available to support businesses that want to reduce food waste, including RecyclingWorks Source Reduction Guidance. This has many tools, tips, and guidance on how to avoid creating food waste. 

Donating surplus food is an excellent way to reduce food waste, while also supporting your local community, increasing morale in your store, and improving your bottom-line financials – all while helping the environment.  There are 4 steps to creating a successful food donation program:

  1. Identify the types and amounts of food to be donated
  2. Identify partner organizations in your area with which to work
  3. Determine packaging, storage, and labeling requirements to ensure food safety
  4. Determine how food will be transported as well as pick-up frequency and quantities

For a complete step-by-step guide on establishing a Food Donation program, please see our Food Donation Guidance page.

Our Source Separation Guidance includes information on how to set up a food scraps diversion program. For more in-depth guidance, see our Restaurant Food Waste Diversion Guide. Most, if not all, of this information can be applied to supermarkets.

Many supermarkets have packaged food materials – which are still subject to the organics disposal ban.  There are a number of facilities in the state that can de-package this type of food waste, to help keep businesses in compliance. For a full list of sites accepting both packaged and source-separated waste, please see Sites Accepting Diverted Food Material and  Packaged Food Material.

Additional Food Waste Resources:

  • The US EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map supports food waste diversion by sharing facility-specific information about possible outlets for excess food. To support businesses in quickly finding their community food bank, Feeding America has developed a Find Your Local Foodbank.
  • Sodexo’s “Huddle Cards” are designed to stimulate conversation around topics related to food waste reduction and prevention.

Recycling Cardboard, Paper, and Containers

Businesses in Massachusetts often use a single stream recycling program to collect cardboard, paper, and plastic, metal, and glass containers. In supermarkets, communication with employees is key to collecting recyclable materials from various departments throughout the store. For supermarkets where customers may also recycle materials, it is important to provide clearly labeled public-facing collection containers. Visit the MassDEP Recycle Smart MA website to learn more about materials typically accepted for single stream recycling and discuss any questions with your recycling hauler.

Cardboard is often included with the single stream recycling. However, larger businesses including grocery stores may find a financial benefit to collecting this material separately. A common practice is to bale cardboard at the store, and then aggregate bales for sale, either directly to local paper mills or to third-party vendors. The RecyclingWorks graphic illustrating how to flatten cardboard boxes, is a great training aid to ensure employees are handling cardboard correctly. 

Waxed cardboard is commonly used for products like ice-packed produce and meat, because the wax protects the cardboard from becoming soggy and breaking down.  Unfortunately, this helpful feature also makes waxed cardboard unacceptable for recycling. Depending on the material characteristics and quantity, waxed cardboard can be composted or made into other products.

Recycling Plastic Film and Shrink Wrap

Grocery stores have a large quantity of stretch plastics, which can include everything from plastic wrapped around cases to plastic bags – any thin plastic that can stretch, as opposed to crinkly plastic that does not stretch. A best practice is to collect all clean, dry stretch plastic in a clear bag. Once aggregated, the plastic can be baled and sometimes sold to companies, such as Trex, that use the material in the manufacturing of composite decking and other products. 

In addition to plastic film generated in the store, many supermarkets allow customers to bring in plastic bags from home to be recycled – including some shipping materials like pillow packs and bubble wrap.

Because plastic bags are not able to be included in Single Stream, supermarkets play a key role in the community by collecting them to be recycled. For a complete list of materials that can be recycled in this stream, see the Plastic Film Recycling website. This website also includes a calculator that may help in your decision to invest in a collection program.

Recycling Rigid Plastics

Rigid plastics are a common material found in supermarkets, often in the form of icing buckets, seafood trays and pharmaceutical containers – items that have not typically been accepted in most single stream recycling programs. However, there are options and markets for stores who want to take the next step in waste diversion and increase their recycling revenue. The Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR) has several resources available to supermarkets who are interested in collecting rigid plastics, including details about the different sources and how to streamline collection. For more information, videos and pictures, and information about launching a successful program, visit Recycle Grocery Rigid Plastics.

Takeout Packaging

Takeout or grab-and-go options often generate large quantities of packaging and other single-use materials that may not be accepted for recycling through a typical single stream program in Massachusetts. Our Guide for Reducing Waste From Takeout and Delivery Meals offers tips to help save money, eliminate unnecessary waste, and purchase takeout materials that can be reused, recycled, or composted.

Businesses that provide recyclable or compostable containers are encouraged to clearly communicate to customers how to handle these materials after use. This may include public-facing signage, verbal reminders from cashiers, handouts included in the takeout bag, or information printed on the food containers.

When selecting products, remember that biodegradable and compostable are not the same. Check with your local hauler or composting end-site that the material you choose is accepted. The following tips will help you identify if compostableware is a good fit for your business:

  • Confirm that customers have access to a curbside or drop-off commercial composting program that accepts this material.
  • Choose products that are third-party certified compostable.
  • If your organics hauler accepts compostableware, offer a public-facing collection bin at your store for customers to return their materials.
  • Communicate with your customers! Compostableware should never go in the recycling bin.

Here are a few additional resources focused on takeout packaging:

Universal Waste – Light bulbs, Electronics, Batteries

Every supermarket should have a recycling program set up for their own internal fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, and electronic equipment. This includes computers, phones, scanners, and monitors.

Supermarkets occasionally have other miscellaneous surplus items – from shelves or whole display units to small drink coolers or freezers – that can be difficult to dispose of.  The RecyclingWorks Find-a-Recycler Tool can help in many cases – for instance, there are categories for metal and Appliances/White Goods. If you need additional guidance identifying solutions for these materials, contact the RecyclingWorks hotline at (888) 254-5525 or info@recyclingworksma.com.   

Supermarket Case Studies

  • Big Y Foods: Learn how Big Y supermarkets saved $2.9 million in 2011 by diverting their organic materials and recyclables from disposal. (Written)

Additional Resources

Learn more about the following business sectors:

When you are ready to start or improve a recycling or composting program, call our Hotline at (888) 254-5524, or email us at info@recyclingworksma.com.

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  1. Unpacking the Potential of Depackaging Food Waste - Center for EcoTechnology

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