Walmart and Farmers Turn Food Waste into Compost

  • The big blue dumpster in action. Photo: Hal B. Klein

  • Unsold produce from nearby Walmart stores. Photo: Hal B. Klein

  • Walmart produce turning to compost at Echo Valley Farm. Photo: Hal B. Klein

November 27, 2013

What to do with too many leftovers? Even grocery stores have that problem.

In fact, a report issued in 2012 by the National Resource Defense Council, finds approximately 40 percent of the food grown and processed in the United States goes uneaten. Now Walmart—fast becoming one of the nation’s biggest grocers—is working with the nonprofit Pennsylvania Resources Council to send truckloads of its unsold produce to nearby farms for composting. 

On a crisp autumn afternoon a blue, five-axle truck rolls up the windy driveway of Dave Anderson’s Echo Valley Farm in New Galilee, Pa., about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Anderson raises grass-fed beef, though he’s fond of joking that he’s really a “grass farmer.” And he has a serious challenge: 40 of his 60 acres were stripped of all their nutrients.

"This land was strip-mined and kind of pillaged back in the 1950s. They took all the topsoil that was on top and now it’s on the bottom, and there’s 30 feet of fill on top of it. It was like the surface of the moon when I moved here; nothing would grow here. So I’m trying to bring the land back," says Anderson.

Although Walmart is often vilified for encouraging mass, cheap consumption, Pennsylvania Resources Council's Nick Shorr says that Walmart should be given credit for some of its environmental initiatives, too.

"Walmart has several sustainable flags that they are entitled to wave. Walmart, across the country, has been diverting all their food waste to composting or anaerobic digesters or a range of good uses and out of landfills," he says.

In western Pennsylvania, for example, Dave Anderson is one of six farmers who receive weekly shipments of at least of 30 tons—per farm—of food waste. 

"The first time it came I was expecting a truck about half the size," says Anderson.

At first, a trickle of liquid and small bits of produce drip from the blue dumpster at it pulls forward. And then, suddenly, a cascade of produce from local Walmart and Sam's Club stores falls like an avalanche from the truck. 

"A lot of pumpkin, squash, apples, peppers, lettuce, potatoes, and pineapples. The full range. And very pure, very clean of impurities," says Shorr, as he inspects the dump.

The USDA estimates that retail outlets such as Walmart lose around $15 billion annually in unsold produce. In urban areas, it’s expensive to use the dump, so businesses have an incentive to recycle food waste. But, closer to the farm it’s cheaper to just throw uneaten food in a landfill.

"And where it’s most needed, it’s not as economical," says Shorr.

Walmart is paying a little extra for this eco-friendly disposal. He says if the pilot program is successful, those disposal costs could come down. And that could encourage other rural and suburban businesses and even school districts to partner with farms, too.

Still, according to some experts, there are better ways to prevent food waste. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency says it would make more sense to grow less food in the first place.

But Dave Anderson says that, for now, with so much food that needs to be disposed of, why not turn it into a natural fertilizer that’ll help restore grassland like his?

"The other alternative would be chemical resources, which work, but they’re not long-term, they’re expensive, and they also damage the ground. They help the plants, but they’ll damage the ground as far as the microorganisms, worm populations and stuff like that. With the compost it’s all upside," he says.

And that, Anderson says, is the literal foundation for a healthy food system.

"When you get the ground right, the grass is right. When the grass is right, the cows are right. You can tell by your animals what shape your ground and your grass is in because they’ll just walk right past it if they don’t like it."