Environmental programs might not be in the limelight as much as they were a few years ago, but anyone who thinks recycling and other "green" initiatives have moved to the back burner in the food industry should look again.
A wide range of environmental programs are being launched or expanded to reduce energy costs and help protect the environment. What was once primarily a media- and consumer-driven crusade to protect the environment has emerged as a mainstream focus of retailer and wholesaler strategic plans for the future.
"More green initiatives are being incorporated into companies' operations today, even though there is a lot less talk about them," said Jim Lampl, director of resource conservation at Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh.
"The industry has made great strides in areas such as source reduction and composting," added Peter Larkin, vice president of state government relations and environmental affairs at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "It has begun to take a hard look at its normal business practices and, as a result, done well by the environment and saved money by incorporating efficiencies."
The development of more comprehensive waste management and energy savings programs is "essentially Efficient Consumer Response on the environmental side," Larkin said. "A lot is going on without receiving a lot of attention today."
The scope of the green movement today extends beyond the realm of paper, plastic, aluminum and glass recycling programs, which are now commonplace in the industry. It also includes new initiatives to reduce energy use substantially. Finast Supermarkets, Maple Heights, Ohio, for example, has launched a comprehensive conservation program that has resulted in a 4% to 5% average reduction in energy use at the chain, said Alexander Sokiranski, director of maintenance and energy management. "We also improved our environmental results, such as the amount of waste generated," he added.
As part of the program, begun five years ago, Finast now monitors energy use at each of its stores via sensors installed throughout the company.
"I know everything going on in every case in every store. I know if a freezer door is open. I actually know if someone lights a match. That's how precise the program is," said Sokiranski, who accesses the information from a computer at the chain's headquarters.
In addition to the monitoring system, Finast now has an energy coordinator at each store who heads up an energy team consisting of representatives from every department. Monthly meetings are held to present reports, discuss topics and listen to invited speakers, he said.
The chain also holds an internal competition and presents awards at the end of the year for best energy performance. "Through knowledge comes participation," Sokiranski said.
Other operators also are stepping up their environmental efforts, whether in the spotlight or behind the scenes.
As part of a growing commitment to environmental programs, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, has moved forward with a number of recycling programs in the past year, said Linda Smith, manager of environmental affairs.
The chain late last year launched a pilot project to collect plastic pallet wrap in its grocery division and has since expanded it to the general merchandise and frozen food divisions. Plastic wrap eventually will be collected on a companywide basis, said Smith.
Last year alone, H-E-B also collected and recycled 70,000 tons of cardboard, 1,050 tons of scrap metal, 1,150 tons of aluminum and 500 tons of plastic bags, Smith said.
The chain has continued its repair program for wooden pallets and begun switching to plastic pallets for warehouse-to-store deliveries, she added.
H-E-B, though, doesn't look to its recycling program as a means to make money, Smith said. "We look at it from a revenue-neutral aspect. Our programs are in response to customer demands to be responsible to the environment."
Giant Eagle already has cardboard and plastic bag recycling programs in place and is now developing programs in other areas, said Lampl.
The chain recently retrofitted the lighting systems in six of its stores with electronic ballasts, and plans to expand that to 20 more stores over the next year. If successful, the systems may be installed in all of the chain's 131 stores, Lampl said.
The program is expected to save 30% to 40% on lighting costs, as well as help reduce air pollution, Lampl said. "The payback is usually two years or less, without utility subsidies. Our goal is to retrofit those stores where we believe it is cost-effective."
The company is now also considering launching a stretch wrap recycling program. "Now we just throw the stretch wrap away."
But Lampl stressed that the reason for initiating a stretch wrap program centered on environmental issues, not cost savings potential. "In Pittsburgh we enjoy really low landfill costs, so we don't have the same economics involved as in the Northeast and Northwest. Environmental concerns would be the primary reason."
Although there may be less public attention being paid to environmental concerns today, "in our industry it has always been a consideration," Lampl said.
Recycling programs at Certified Grocers of California, Commerce, Calif., generated $98,000 in 1994 alone, according to Vic Arminio, senior purchasing agent. That amount includes revenues from recycling of scrap metals, paper products, plastic, stretch film and milk bottle plastic.
"We now recycle 387 tons of corrugated cardboard, 156 tons of stretch wrap and 34 tons of office paper a year," he said.
Certified has now also begun to recycle such items as truck tires and batteries.
"A lot of companies used to throw these items in the trash, but now we require our vendors to take these unusables back. The batteries and old tires now are turned in and recycled. All of the used motor oils and solvents, and even truck oil filters, are being recycled."
State laws calling for an increase in the percentage of materials diverted from landfills was one factor that spurred the chain to implement recycling programs early on. But Certified Grocers has already exceeded the five-year goal set by the state.
Arminio said he isn't surprised by the scope of the recycling programs now. "What I am surprised about is that we were just throwing all this stuff in the trash for so long. Recycling stretch wrap alone has had an amazing impact on our contribution to the landfills."
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, for its part has had an "Earth Matters" environmental program in place since 1989. The program focuses on education and on waste reduction and recovery, said Ted Brown, private brand and environmental affairs manager.
As part of the program, one of the company's objectives is to recover up to 90% of its solid waste through recycling and reuse of materials. Currently it is achieving a rate of between 75% to 80% in some stores, Brown said.
"We are still working to hit the 90% mark. What keeps us from achieving that is waxed corrugated and wooden crates. Those two commodities represent anywhere from 5% to 15% of your waste stream," he said.
The key to these and other recycling programs at the chain, Brown stressed, is that "we source everything separate. All inorganic material is removed, all packaging is removed and separated from organic material."
Although there might be some savings as a result of the various programs, the money isn't the main point, he said. "We are more concerned that we do the right thing in the communities we serve. I think the whole matter of recovery of solid waste materials is viewed more and more as an important part of doing business."
The food industry, he pointed out, has changed significantly in just the last few years.
"In 1989 I took a walk through our stores and saw very few packages with recycling symbols on them, whether plastic or paper, steel or even aluminum. Today, if you walk through a typical store, you find just the opposite. Rarely do you find a package that doesn't have some recyclable content or is recyclable," Brown said.