How supermarkets and grocery stores contribute to food waste

Surplus food often finds its way from shelves to the landfill


American grocery stores are known for their abundance of choice. Often, the aisles are bursting with thousands of different ingredients and products—which means it’s pretty easy to walk into one and come out with what you wanted plus a few extra tasty treats.

But much of that abundance isn’t actually consumed, meaning grocery stores end up with millions of tons of food waste they don’t sell. Roughly half of what supermarkets toss is outright uneaten or otherwise not used for its original purpose, making stores a substantial source of food waste.  

What are the main reasons for grocery store food waste?

There are many culprits for grocery store food waste, but one outshines all the others. Confusion over “sell by,” “best by,” and other date stamps on food contribute 54.6% of all food chucked at grocery stores, according to ReFED, a national nonprofit focused on food waste solutions.1 An array of other problems are to blame for the other half of grocery retailers’ wasted food, primarily handling errors, spoilage, and overproduction, the nonprofit says. 

How does food waste in households compare to grocery stores?

According to ReFED, grocery retailers ended up with just under 5 million tons of surplus food in 2022. But since some of that is used for other purposes—like donations or animal feed—only about 5 million tons can actually be considered “food waste.” While that’s quite a bit of wasted food, the amount wasted by grocery retailers is significantly lower than American households, which wasted 42.8 million tons of food in 2022.

Of those 5 million tons of grocery store waste, ReFED says about 30% of the wasted food goes straight to the landfill. Just over 18% is composted, more than 19% goes to donation, and 17.5% gets converted into animal feed,. A smaller amount (4.9%) ends up being anaerobically digested, which means the food decayed in an oxygen-free environment in order to create another product, like biogas. Another 4.3% of it is burned for energy production at incineration plants.

What is the environmental impact of grocery store food waste?

While some food waste may get a second chance at usefulness through composting, conversion to animal feed, or anaerobic digestion, any grocery store food waste that ends up in the landfill contributes to the climate crisis.

Regardless of source, the amount of wasted food sent to our landfills creates enough methane to rival the amount of carbon dioxide emissions spewed by 42 coal-fired power plants. The U.S. is quickly running out of space to throw out its trash, and the massive amount of food scraps being dumped every minute aren’t helping. Plus, all the resources needed to create that unused food are substantial, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, whether its millions of acres of unnecessary land use to trillions of gallons of essentially wasted fresh water. 

What is the economic impact of grocery store food waste?

Buying and then tossing food doesn’t benefit a grocer’s bottom line. According to a 2023 literature review, the costs associated with food waste amount to an average of nearly 2% of a store’s net sales.2 That’s almost equal to the average margins of grocery retailers.

What laws most impact grocery store food waste?

While many aspects of food production and sales are regulated, the dates on labels are not. That leads to a lot of questions as to whether a product should stay on the shelf—and more often than not, a “if in doubt, chuck it out” mentality is adopted. A lot of less-than-perfect yet completely edible food isn’t consumed for that reason.

So-called “expiration dates” do not actually indicate when a food will no longer be good to eat. Instead, food date labels are generally a manufacturer’s indication of when vittles might be past their best quality—like the date your cereal might start to get a little stale in the unopened box. There are no federal regulations for date labels, except when it comes to infant formula. That’s to say: There’s a reason your parents haven’t gotten food poisoning despite half of their refrigerator and pantry being full of items listed as “best by” or “expired” ten years ago. 

When it comes to donating food from grocery stores to those in need, it can be tricky and policies vary state-by-state. For example, in New York, the Donation and Food Scraps Recycling law requires institutions and businesses that waste an average of two or more tons of food per week to donate extra edible meals and recycle the rest. Nationwide, the Food Donation Improvement Act protects organizations who donate food from potential liabilities in order to help get food to those in need while reducing the amount of waste created. 

How can grocery stores reduce food waste?

For shoppers, some food waste reduction buying strategies may seem obvious: stop buying so much, plan ahead to eat what you purchase and store everything properly. Some of those strategies can also be adopted by groceries, but others are unique to the space.

Dynamic pricing

Typically in the U.S., a grocery store will keep its prices the same over days or weeks. But that fixed, or “static,” pricing doesn’t account for changing variables, like spoilage potential and fluctuations in inventory.

That’s where dynamic pricing, a practice uncommon in the U.S., can provide an assist in the fight against food waste. Dynamic pricing is when a store changes prices to reflect ongoing consumer demand. It’s similar to surge pricing on rideshare apps, where prices fluctuate according to demand throughout the day and night. According to a 2023 study from researchers at the University of California, San Diego, dynamic pricing reduces food waste by 21%.3 In fact, the analysis found that the practice to be more effective than organic waste bans. Numerous grocery chains in Europe and in Asia actively use or are piloting dynamic pricing policies.

Improved stock management

ReFED suggests grocery retailers adopt a “first expired, first out” policy, meaning that customers should be encouraged to purchase what is most likely to expire soon. “This inventory management method is designed to reduce waste by considering remaining shelf life and varying spoilage or decay sensitivities of products,” the nonprofit states in its food waste solutions database. This sort of policy can be implemented through physical changes, like better date labeling and rearranging least-fresh options toward the front. But it can also look like tech solutions that predict stock demand to gauge when products will spoil and if people will want as much as the store wants to buy.4 

However, this isn’t as straightforward as it may sound. ReFED notes that this policy can be tricky to implement for highly perishable products that lack any label information, such as large amounts of fruits and veggies.

Just like at home, the overarching approach recommended for grocery stores to reduce their food waste is to keep tabs on what is coming in and what—and how—it’s going out. Food headed to the dumpsters behind the shop is a sure sign that managers have room to improve their systems and be more mindful of what products their customers just aren’t excited to eat.

Donations and last-minute deals

Even with technological tweaks and some logistical changes, some food might still not be purchased. That’s when grocery stores can turn to local community partners that help people struggling to afford food, like food banks or homeless shelters. Those organizations will know who needs free food directed their way.

But grocery stores do have a new option to sell nearly expired food: apps that provide last-minute deals. Some, like Too Good To Go, allow grocery stores (and other food sellers) to give serious discounts to buyers willing to show up at the end of the shop’s day and not be picky about what they get. 

Other apps, like Flashfood, will list specific items (with photos) and the deeply discounted price that you can pick up in-store. That’s a win-win for both the budget-conscious buyer and the waste-adverse seller.

  1. ReFed Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  2. Minimizing Food Waste in Grocery Store Operations: Literature Review and Research Agenda, Sustainability Analytics and Modeling, 2023 ↩︎
  3. Dynamic Pricing and Organic Waste Bans: A Study of Grocery Retailers’ Incentives to Reduce Food Waste, University of California, San Diego, Dec. 2023 ↩︎
  4. Modelling Dynamic Freshness-Keeping Effort Over a Finite Time Horizon in a Two-Echelon Online Fresh Product Supply Chain, European Journal of Operational Research, Sep. 2021 ↩︎