Food & Bev

How Divert has helped save 220,000 tons of waste from retailers

With an eight-year expansion plan, the company is aiming for new partnerships across the food industry
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· 4 min read

At the grocery store, consumers most often pass over bruised apples, wrinkled cherries, and wilted greens for their more supple and shiny counterparts. While the amount one consumer passes up may not sound like a lot, it adds up.

The US wastes 119 billion pounds of food every year, and commercial waste–across food service, manufacturing, farms, and yes, retail—accounts for 61% of this.

The biggest cause—according to Ryan Begin, co-founder and CEO of retail food-waste reduction company Divert—is people. But this waste isn’t just picky shoppers’ fault; things like operations, marketing, and merchandising all play a part, especially now, as retailers are trying to “do more with less” amid high labor costs and turnover, Begin said.

Since 2007, the Massachusetts-based company has worked to cut down food waste people cause with three other P-words: prevent, provide, and power. To do so, it has partnered with 5,200 retailers like Kroger, Albertsons, CVS, Target, and Stop & Shop, establishing processes to keep food sellable longer, and to donate or create clean power with the food that’s not.

According to Divert, it has redirected 220,000 tons of waste per year along the way, and with an eight-year expansion plan and new food donation legislation on its side, it’s aiming to further grow its impact and shrink landfills.

Cut your losses: According to Begin, “The best thing that any retailer can do to save money is to buy food and sell food.” Sounds simple and obvious enough, right? But it doesn’t always happen, especially with fresh food, which has the highest loss rate at grocers.

Strawberries, for example, are among the retail items shoppers complain about the most, he said. They’re hard to transport, and suppliers and retailers can’t control the timing of ripeness like they can with bananas. When the refrigerated truck shipping them is off by a few degrees or the food sits too long on the dock, or a worker doesn’t follow the first in, first out method, their shelf life begins to shrink.

  • The company uses product tracking and imaging to determine how it can improve a retailers’ operations. With one retail partner, Divert said it found it could extend the shelf life of strawberries by 25% simply by lowering their holding temperature by one degree.

“[It’s] those little things that people aren’t doing through the supply chain that cause food waste,” Begin said. “You have to put all of those really little things together to cause that big outcome.”

  • The company says it saved one retail partner $12,800 per year per store across its 250+ California footprint.
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Waste away: But some food still ends up not being purchased, and Divert works with retailers to create systems to collect this food for donations. (Despite what you might think, food banks and pantries often accept blemished produce or a container of berries where only a few have molded, Begin noted.)

The Food Donation Improvement Act, signed into federal law last month, will help ease one of grocers’ biggest concerns around donating leftover food: potential legal ramifications. Aimed at addressing food insecurity, the law expands civil and criminal liability protection to encourage more donations, building off the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.

  • The law now covers the donation of food straight from businesses like grocery stores and restaurants to those in need, while previously only protecting those that donate through a nonprofit organization.
  • Begin said support from the government through laws like this and the Farm Bill is “incredibly important” for food waste reduction.

From the waste down: Still, some food may be too far gone to be donated. So what then? Divert partnered with Kroger on its first anaerobic digestion facility in Compton, California in 2012, with its second in Freetown, Massachusetts, with Stop & Shop in 2016. These facilities convert inedible food from stores into energy to power Stop & Shop’s distribution center, filtering out microplastics, like produce stickers or twist ties, that aerobic processes like composting often miss.

Divert plans to build 30 facilities across the US over the next eight years, which will enable it to reach 80% of the population, Begin said. It’s planning a full-scale facility twice the size of its Freetown one in Turlock, California, set to open in the first quarter of 2024.

The expansion plan broadens the types of partnerships Divert can form, Begin noted. It’ll soon look to work with CPG and wholesale food manufacturers to deal with things like unusable ingredients, along with smaller, independent retailers to make these practices standard throughout the industry.

“When you’re a retailer, the basic processes, the best managed practices, are universal,” Begin said.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.