Green Scene: Jewel-Osco grocery stores striving for zero waste

Zero waste is defined as diverting 90 percent of trash from landfills by recycling and composting. According to John Dunsing, Jewel-Osco’s Environmental Sustainability Manager, 37 Jewel-Osco stores are currently achieving zero waste, with several stores diverting as much as 97 percent of their waste stream.

Jewel was the first major retailer in the Chicagoland area to recycle cardboard and plastic grocery bags. Recently the company has adopted a 100 percent sustainable fishing practice, and rendering programs have been initiated which utilize meat, fat and bone from non-sellable food items to create biodiesel. Jewel’s journey to zero waste has been wide-ranging and extensive, but one final step was necessary to achieve this goal: a food scrap diversion program.

Dunsing, who is based at Jewel’s home office in Itasca, spoke to us about the difficulties he faced in trying to start up a food scrap diversion program at the end of 2010. “Most of the businesses and agencies I contacted initially would not even consider my ideas.  They told me it was not possible or cost effective.” Dunsing did not relent and was able to find like-minded people who were able to see his vision and help bring it to reality.

Waste Management is working with the DeKalb Jewel-Osco on becoming a zero-waste store. Food scraps from this store are transported to a compost site at the back of the Waste Management landfill on Somonauk Road.

Another possibility for future food scrap diversion is anaerobic food waste digesters. One such digester is being built at The Plant in Chicago, which is net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. Jewel-Osco will donate food scraps to the facility housing the odorless anaerobic digester. By 2015 it will be able to consume 27 tons of food waste a day.

Jewel-Osco has laid the foundation for other businesses in Illinois to join their food scrap program. Companies that are not yet diverting food scraps cite cost as the main reason for not doing so. “As more food scrap diversion programs are initiated and route density is built up, costs of participation may come down,” Dunsing said.

We also asked Dunsing about in-store plastic bag recycling. “We can recycle all soft plastics, including the plastic shrink wrap around products such as bottled water and paper towels, but it has to be clean,” he said. “We can’t recycle contaminated plastic.”

To put the magnitude of this endeavor into perspective, before the food scrap diversion program was in place, a typical Jewel store would produce about a ton of waste per day. Zero-waste stores currently produce 150-200 pounds of waste per day.

Green Scene is written by Renee Kopulos and Linda Yates, members of a citizens group working with the City of DeKalb Citizens Environmental Commission. Contact them at, with “ Green Scene ” in the subject line.

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