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    How Wegmans Food Markets is Going Zero Waste

    Photo: Buddy Vatalaro, Produce Manager, Wegmans & Bill Mcelwee, Perishable Manager at Allentown’s Wegmans location with their back of house bins for waste, compost and recycling.

    We’re partnering with fan-favorite grocery store Wegmans to find out about another soon-to-be favorite sustainability initiative: Zero Waste. In our first post, find out how this initiative began and is executed in a store with 70,000 products. 

    Sustainability at Wegmans

    “One person isn’t going to change (everything). But when you’re thinking of one person as a company, they have a larger impact than the individual.”

    – Buddy Vatalaro, Produce Manager, Wegmans

    You may have heard the statistic before. 40% of our food in the US is wasted. One person might be able to start composting and saving foods before throwing them out, but as Vatalaro points out, one company can have a way bigger impact. With up to 70,000 products in a single store, Wegmans has room to impact a lot more.

    Luckily, Jason Wadsworth, Manager of Sustainability at Wegmans, was up to the challenge. As a third generation Wegmans employee (his grandfather was Manager of Operations in 1967), Wadsworth is invested in seeing sustainability success at the grocery empire. Wegmans focuses on three main areas: reducing carbon emissions, reducing waste sent to landfills and providing employees and customers with sustainable packaging and product choices.

    “I’m just a farm boy. The things that excite me are playing in the dirt and composting.” – Jason Wadsworth

     Wegmans Compost Bins

    Wegmans Allentown compost bins

    the journey to Zero Waste At Wegmans

    Although Wadsworth is quite humble about his accomplishments, his passion for the farm has inspired him to grow composting personally and professionally. At work, Wadsworth and teams of dedicated employees have worked together on improving efficiency that’s allowed Wegmans to take on more ambitious goals. Food waste diversion programs are in place at the majority of Wegmans stores.

    “It’s always going to be a journey. It’s about continuous improvement.”

    – Jason Wadsworth on Zero Waste initiatives.

     

    Wadsworth said the simplicity of Zero Waste is one of the best parts of the initiative since the term communicates to customers and employees the eventual goal. But it also allows for benchmarks along the way. Currently, the average recycling rate at a Wegmans store is 64 percent, so they set a goal of an 80% diversion rate from landfills as step one.

    When you have a 97-store chain, it’s difficult to roll out zero-waste efforts everywhere at once. Wegmans has ‘hub” stores where they can test new initiatives, record successes and opportunities for improvements and use as a model store for others. One of these hub stores for Zero Waste is Allentown.

    Seeing Zero Waste in action: road trip to Allentown

    Step one for Allentown was to complete a waste audit where they surveyed what was going into the trash. From there, the team was able to create tactics to reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill and then determine what could go to composting, recycling and food donations. While the stores receive guidelines for the program, each store is encouraged to tailor the program as needed, That’s what Allentown did, experimenting with best practices and making decisions based on practicality for its location, specifically with in-store systems, training staff and assessing metrics.

    It’s working. In the ten short months after rolling out the program, the Wegmans Allentown store is surpassing its original goal of diverting 80% of waste to landfills. Benchmarking around 70-71%, last month, the store hit an 81.9% diversion rate. But they won’t stop there; their next eye on the prize will be hitting 85%.

    What is the key to Allentown’s success? Passion. About 8 employees are focused on the Zero Waste initiatives, but they have succeeded with getting additional colleagues excited, engaged and spreading the green word. With about 540 employees in one store, education ranges from more formal signs and visible benchmarking to allowing that organic break room chatter. According to Mcelwee, “People from all different generations are getting on board.”Wegmans Bakery composting Wegmans bakery department is one of the key stakeholders to its zero waste initiatives.

    Allentown leaders communicate in so many ways to make zero waste easy. For one, they created a reference guide for employees, so they can quickly check a product’s end life (recycling versus composting versus trash) and have a color-coded barcode system for a package’s recyclable or compostable capability. Staff like Buddy Vatalaro, Produce Manager and one of the key zero waste leaders, are always on hand to answer employee’s questions. Vatalaro would prefer that employees ask for clarification rather than doing something incorrectly. As Vatalaro explains, “we don’t just want to tell them that there’s a problem. We provide a solution.”

    Wegmans Recycling Rates

    Wegmans Allentown back of house recycling sign notes how much has been diverted to recycling, donations, and compost versus landfill so employees can stay engaged in the process.

    According to Vatalaro, he’s already seeing the change in employee behavior. “The employees hold something and the first thought is ‘where can this go?’ rather than putting it into the trash. It hasn’t been as hard since employees talk and challenge each other to do the ‘right’ thing. “

    Another part of the zero waste puzzle? Food donations are a big part of diversion. Food is donated to local food banks and nonprofits. At the Allentown store, Wegmans has donated 26 tons of food to local food banks and pantries to feed those in need this year. Food donations add up for Wegmans stores: In 2017, Wegmans donated over 14 million pounds of food to people in need.

    Other excess food, such as food scraps, goes to the animals at the Lehigh Valley Zoo, where giraffes enjoy the leftover leaf lettuce and the tortoises are munching on the tomatoes.

    Although Allentown is still just 10 months in, it’s making an impact with 45,000 people shopping in its store each week.

     In our next post in our Zero Waste at Wegmans series, find out how creating a Zero Waste store at Wegmans is a team effort.

     

    Julie Hancher

    About Julie Hancher

    Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake.

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