The extent of food waste is staggering. Though the figures are dynamic, a report by United Nations Environment Programme published in 2021, estimated 931 million tons of food waste was generated in 2019, globally. Of that figure, 26 percent was derived from food services, particularly in high-income countries.
In the U.S., the picture was no better. ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste, noted 35 percent of food in this country went unsold or uneaten, translating into $408 billion worth of food. Using figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 about 103 million tons of wasted food was generated, representing 63 million tons in the commercial sector alone. Restaurant and food services accounted for producing 17 percent of the overall waste.
The effect of food waste on the environment is equally troubling. Food waste that is not composted goes directly into landfills and produces methane gas, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, accounts for about 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Methane gas emissions—derived from the decay of organic waste—have a direct effect on climate change. It has accounted for 30 percent of global warming since pre-industrial times. And according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while carbon dioxide emissions decreased during the pandemic, methane gases actually increased.
In the introduction to the UNEP report, Inger Andersen, the executive director of UNEP, notes, “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste also burdens waste management systems, exacerbates food insecurity, making it a major contributor to the three planetary crises of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.”
Movement to Curb Food Waste
The reasons behind food waste at the restaurant level are multifold. Wasted food includes everything from unusable kitchen trimmings to expired food to uneaten prepared food by consumers to overbuying.
Whether or not there is an actual movement in the restaurant industry to curb waste is up for debate, says Jeffrey Clark, director of expert exchange communities with The National Restaurant Association. “A lot of restaurants are having so much trouble just keeping the doors open and having staff leave due to ‘The Great Resignation.’ With all of these things, food waste has taken a back seat,” he says.
However, he adds, there is a lot of pressure from the eco-conscious consumer to move in this direction. “There is definitely more awareness by the consumer now, at least that I’ve ever seen. It’s a much more sophisticated and engaged consumer. Your consumers are going to start demanding this soon if they haven’t already,” says Clark.
Plus, new municipal regulations aimed at restaurant food waste are becoming more common. For example, in Austin, Texas, a 2018 recycling ordinance requires restaurants to compost food scraps or give them away. Clark says it is better in the long run to voluntarily take the initiative to curb food waste before it is legally mandated.
While zero waste may be elusive, there are steps restaurants can take to mitigate the problem.
An initiative and partnership between the Association and World Wildlife Fund, 86 Food Waste provides waste-reduction guides and tips for restaurants. These practical solutions were garnered after doing food waste audits at restaurants via Leanpath, a company that does food waste analysis on the back end of the kitchen, weighing how much food is being thrown away. “For example, you analyze the cost of throwing away a tin of cooked carrots and how much it would cost to your company if you did the same thing every week for a year. It gives you the breakdown of how much food is tossed in the trash. Doing that front end analysis in terms of food waste is most efficient and allows restaurants to understand that they throw away more food than they think,” Clark says.
As adapted from the 86 Food Waste Report, Clark says that restaurateurs that want to start tackling food waste can begin by doing the following:
- Contact your local waste utility, state or county waste division and see what infrastructure is available. Can you donate food to local farms?
- You can’t manage what you don’t measure; separating and measuring waste drives in-house reduction efforts. Hire someone to perform a waste audit or incentivize your staff to perform a self-audit.
- Find out what other restaurateurs in your area are doing. Contact your state or city restaurant association and see how restaurant operators took this problem on.
- Contact your local food bank and find out if and how you can donate leftover food.
- Empower your employees to build a green team, set food waste reduction goals, and strive to meet them over time. Implement their ideas to reduce prep waste in BOH and what servers and bussers are seeing with FOH waste (e.g., free bread not being eaten, portion sizes too large).
Forecasting Demand as a Food Waste Mitigation Solution
Campbell Brown, of Predict HQ, headquartered in New Zealand, says much of the solution comes down to awareness. “We help businesses better understand what type of events decrease or increase demand,” he says. For example, if there is a sporting event in town, his company could help a pizza restaurant adjust the amount of dough it would need to accommodate that event. “On the flip side, if they know there’s a hurricane coming, we help them understand how a hurricane impacts their demand. If they know when they should be replenishing their restaurant, with the right amount of product, that means less waste of food,” Brown says.
This kind of demand forecasting also relates to labor optimization. “With supply chain issues, and with labor shortages, being able to know when you’re going to see these surges is mission critical for these businesses now,” Brown says. He adds restaurants are seeing a 10–20 percent improvement in their forecast accuracy by using his company’s intelligence.
“We are moving into a new world where a lot of these businesses now are at a level where they can begin to adapt in a far more dynamic way, and that will be great for everyone. We are seeing it happen in other industries like airlines and hotels, and I am guessing it will happen in the [quick-service restaurant] world, which will benefit the restaurant and the environment,” Brows says.
To illustrate how some of these solutions can be put into practice, Clark highlights Subway. He says Subway donated cookies at the end of the day to Feeding America or other donated locations. “It made a huge difference in the number of cookies not going to the landfill,” Clark says.
Subway also looked at how to cut peppers. “One of the illustrations in the employee handbook was incorrect, so they had to go back and change the language slightly. They were able to create an extra pepper out of a bag of peppers, getting more pepper slices from one bag. When you multiply it by tens of thousands of locations nationally and internationally, that is tens of thousands of pounds of peppers. Little things like this can make a difference and can continue over a multi-year term,” Clark says.
A Zero-Waste, Zero-Cost Kitchen
The mission of 412 Food Rescue, a nonprofit based in suburban Pittsburgh, is multifold: to prevent perfectly good food from entering the waste stream by redirecting it to those who are experiencing food insecurity. Set in a converted Moose Lodge, the solar-powered Millvale Food + Energy Hub is the home to The Good Food Project, an initiative of the 412 Food Rescue. Along with its partners New Sun Rising and Sprezzatura Café, the Good Food Project transforms surplus food—gathered from a local restaurant food distributor—into healthy meals that are then distributed in compostable containers to seven nonprofits throughout Allegheny County.
Head chef and project manager Greg Austin estimates 700–800 meals are delivered weekly, which includes a main dish, side dish and dessert. One recent example is French lamb ribs on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and herbs as well as a fruit-based dessert. Austin aims to double the meals by year’s end, noting that last year, The Good Food Project prepared 16,000 meals.
The kitchen is one of the world’s first zero-waste kitchen, as well as a zero-cost kitchen, as the entirety of its products and ingredients are from donated food. Any food that is unable to be used is composted; none of it goes to the landfills.
“I think it's evident that it's environmentally and socially critical that we restructure our thinking and practices around production, in all sectors. I'm honored to be part of an effort that highlights what's possible,” Austin says