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A lot of rubbish

November 30, 2015

The waste-recycling program at the sprawling Mall of America has become a worldwide model.

It also has become something of the stuff of pigpens. Workers toss the food waste from roughly 50 restaurants, three theme parks and multiple nightclubs at the 4.8 million-square-foot, Bloomington, Minn., shopping center, into 33-gallon containers, which then go to a central loading dock. There, local farmers haul them off for use as pig slop for some fairly privileged swine that dine high on the hog: The 150 tons of mall food that fattens the animals includes steak and lobster scraps.

For other recyclables, Mall of America tenants take advantage of a system of chutes and carts to move materials to nearly 30 storerooms, where waste-management staffers sort them. Hundreds of tons of used corrugated containers are sold annually to a local paper mill, helping subsidize the mall’s recycling programs. Developers and waste-processing experts from around the world travel to Mall of America to study its recycling programs, which penalize nonparticipating tenants with steadily increasing disposal fees. 


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It is clear that the retail industry, which has for the past decade focused largely on the energy- and water-saving side of sustainability, is turning its sights to waste management and landfill diversion.

At Ancar Ivanhoe’s Eldorado shopping center, in São Paulo, Brazil, organic food-court waste never makes it out of the facility — at least, not directly. Compost from the 900 pounds of waste produced daily from the 10,000 meals served there is used to grow vegetables on the rooftop garden, after it is mixed with enzymes to eliminate bacteria. Mall employees tend to the pesticide-free produce, which includes lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplant and basil, then harvest it for free personal use or for donation to local charities. The program has been expanded to two malls in Rio de Janeiro.

“The market is beginning to see some important shifts in what’s possible in waste treatment,” said Will Teichman, director of sustainability at Kimco Realty Corp. But this is a challenge, he says, because waste reduction is not nearly as cut-and-dried an affair as other green practices. “Waste is a much more complicated issue than energy consumption, because it is a localized issue,” said Teichman. Recycling efforts are sometimes limited by the number of programs cities offer, the capabilities of haulers and the available materials-processing infrastructure in a given community, Teichman says. “Many malls were built prior to the emergence of widespread waste separation and diversion practices, and, as a result, have physical constraints that must be overcome.” 

“According to the EPA, organic waste (including yard trimmings) constitutes 28 percent of what ends up in landfills, and this is problematic, because such waste produces methane, which has 21 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide”

The industry’s aggressive recruiting of new food businesses to fill retail space, driven in part by increasing Millennial generation demand for novel dining experiences, is yielding significantly more food waste than ever, while at the same time prompting solutions for it, says Ethan Bond, strategic -business director at Houston-based Waste Management, a national waste-and-environmental-services company with 150 recycling centers. A proliferation of food-serving movie theaters, boutique bakeries, specialty-drinks stores and other nonrestaurant food-and-beverage tenants is only adding to all the organic refuse, Bond says. “This will have a dampening effect on landfill diversion without a sustainable recycling alternative, a program that can promote both cost savings and a green image for the industry,” he said. By necessity, large, land-constrained cities such as New York and Los Angeles have gotten on board with waste-recycling programs, but many smaller ones with ample landfill space have yet to address things, Bond says.

More cities and states are starting to force the issue, however, making composting mandatory for commercial properties. Last fall California enacted a law requiring food-generating businesses such as eateries and supermarkets to separate food scraps for organics recycling, starting in 2016. San Francisco already has a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance for businesses and residences, instituted in 2009. In New York City a commercial organics law that took effect in July requires large food-waste generators to recycle organics or use other city-approved methods. In Austin, Texas, restaurants larger than 5,000 square feet will be required to compost starting this coming year, with smaller restaurants to follow the year after that. Portland and Seattle have similar laws. A Massachusetts ban on disposal of organic waste by businesses using a ton or more of certain materials per week took effect in late 2014.

According to the EPA, organic waste (including yard trimmings) constitutes 28 percent of what ends up in landfills, and this is problematic, because such waste produces methane, which has 21 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide. 

“Some of the large national big-box tenants, including Walmart and Target, have started to take waste-disposal matters into their own hands, instituting their own programs”

Simon’s Emerald Square, in North Attleborough, Mass., and Southshore Plaza, in Braintree, Mass., both have composting programs that divert about a ton of food waste weekly. A similar program introduced last year at The Shops at Mission Viejo (Calif.) should divert considerably more, according to Simon’s latest sustainability report. Simon malls also divert and recycle upwards of 34,000 tons of cardboard annually.

Food-scrap diversion can also solve ancillary problems. Kimco’s Suburban Square, in Ardmore, Pa., which houses the well-patronized Ardmore Farmers Market, had a recurring problem with dumpster odor; management employed deodorants and other short-term solutions before turning to composting. The farmers market worked with Kitchen Harvest, a compost collector that distributes its by-products to nearby farms, to arrange for pickup of the food scraps four times a week from bins placed at the back of the complex. Annual cost: $8,000. The move saved on tenant common-area fees as well, since stepped-up peak-season trash collections were no longer necessary. This model is atypical for Kimco, but it can work at other shopping centers, says Teichman.

Canada-based Oxford Properties has launched two green food courts — at Square One shopping center, in -Mississauga, Ontario, and at Yorkdale mall, in Toronto. Those now use nondisposable dinnerware and silverware, keeping some 10 million Styrofoam plates and plastic cups and cutlery out of landfills annually, the company says. Patrons return their food trays to stations where staffers sort the waste; there are no garbage bins in the court. Oxford conducts annual waste audits at its retail facilities.

At Trinity Leeds shopping center, in Leeds, England, management has challenged its 120 tenants to implement waste-treatment best practices by separating refuse into color-coded waste streams for food, packing materials and general waste. Food waste is channeled through a process called anaerobic digestion, which turns its gas emissions into electricity, according to center manager Dave Downes. The mall’s goal is a recycling rate of over 95 percent.

But it is the Flanders region of Belgium, population 6.2 million, that is considered the vanguard of waste management in Europe, boasting the Continent’s highest waste-diversion rate — and 337 separate recycling parks. Developers of retail projects that generate a certain amount of debris must present a deconstruction plan before building, and they are solely responsible for dealing with their construction and demolition waste, about 90 percent of which gets recycled.

“Retailers and shopping centers are taking more-formalized and active approaches to waste management that are yielding better results,” said Julia Raish, a manager and retail leader in the Seattle office of Paladino and Co., a green-building and sustainability consulting firm. “Entities are also realizing that you can’t just go grab someone else’s platform and slap it on your own,” she said. “Each organization is unique.” Companies are also updating procurement policies to help stem the flow of excess or nonrecyclable plastics such as garment bags, according to Raish. More retailers and developers are sharing best practices on waste and recycling programs at industry gatherings, she says. One of the next big thrusts of the ICSC Property Efficiency Scorecard, which allows companies to benchmark energy and water use against peers, will involve waste and recycling.

Some of the large national big-box tenants, including Walmart and Target, have started to take waste-disposal matters into their own hands, instituting their own programs. Trucks that arrive full of merchandise from distribution centers are often back-filled with plastic and other recyclables for the return journey. Back at the distribution center, the materials are consolidated and resold for a profit. “Larger retailers have been able to take what used to be a cost center and turn it into a profit center,” Teichman said.

Other retailers are also doing their part on both macro and micro levels. Albertsons stores in San Diego now compost dozens of tons of food scraps annually as part of that city’s Miramar Greenery Food Waste Composting Program. Nordstrom stores there are also getting into the act, by composting some 200 pounds of food scraps per week from their eateries. In 2014 Food Lion launched a zero-waste program in 50 stores, with expansion ongoing in 200 additional ones. Sears, which has also declared zero waste a goal, engages its stores in competition for benchmarks against similar-sized retailers. Sears also verifies that waste materials are actually getting diverted away from landfills. Nike, in its own zero-waste zeal, uses software and a data-intelligence tool to track waste volume, collection and sorting functions and to determine what time of day dumpsters are full at its Oregon headquarters campus. Nike has replaced the larger bins with compactors, consolidating the contents into dumpsters, necessitating fewer pickups. Mediacorp named Ikea among Canada’s Greenest Employers for the seventh consecutive year. The retailer achieved an 84 percent waste-diversion score there in its latest fiscal year.

“Using a single vendor saves wear and tear on each -property, creates economies of scale and promotes contractor accountability”

Meanwhile, Kimco is working with tenants around the country to consolidate multiple waste haulers at each shopping center. “We’ve seen five or more different waste haulers serving one property,” said Teichman. Using a single vendor saves wear and tear on each -property, creates economies of scale and promotes contractor accountability, he says.

Macerich achieved a top ranking in the U.S. retail sector for 2015 in the Netherlands-based Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark partly on the strength of its recycling programs. In addition to its reported 29 percent decrease in energy use, the firm is recycling roughly 12,250 tons of waste annually. General Growth Properties says it has raised its waste-diversion rate from 24 percent in 2013 to 32.6 percent in 2014.

The past five years have seen a shift from landlords’ treating their tenant waste costs as a common-area amenity to making them the full responsibility of each tenant, Teichman says. “That creates a positive economic incentive for tenants to produce less waste,” he said, “and it also minimizes scenarios where large waste producers are subsidized by others.”

Teichman, Bond and Raish concur that retailers and shopping centers will continue to create new and expanded landfill-diversion programs in the coming years. “If you are a real waste innovator,” said Raish, “it is a way to differentiate yourself.”

By Steve McLinden

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today