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Jan Lee headshot

It's Time to Rethink Restaurant Food Waste

Words by Jan Lee

Talk to any restaurant owner, and you will likely find that food waste is one of the top concerns when it comes to revenue loss.   A 2013 study conducted by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), on behalf of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, indicated that more than 84 percent of the food waste generated by surveyed U.S. restaurants ended up in the landfill.  Only 1.4 percent was donated, while 14.3 percent was recycled, and most of that was reclaimed as cooking oil.

On average, say the authors, that translates to 15.7 percent food loss across the industry, or 3.3 pounds of food waste per $1,000 of company revenue. As the survey points out, that's a significant loss for both large and small companies in the restaurant sector. For a corporation with a billion-dollar revenue, it works out to more than 3 million pounds of consumables that are paid for, but not used.

The survey also uncovered some interesting statistics regarding the barriers that restaurants commonly face when it comes to donating or composting leftover food.  Most of the conventional restaurants and quick-stop eateries organization surveyed said transportation constraints, limits in storage capacity and insufficient on-site refrigeration were the greatest impediments to donating extra food to charities. Barriers to recycling/composting food waste included "insufficient recycling options," management or building limitations, and transportation challenges as major reasons why recyclable food usually ended up in the landfill.

Addressing the national food waste challenge

Fortunately, cities like San Francisco and Seattle are working to address those challenges by ensuring that recycling and composting options are available and used by businesses as well as private residents. But as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have discovered in recent years, many companies lack the knowledge and familiarity with processes that allow them to divert their food waste to secondary uses.

In 2013, the two agencies took up this issue and launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge in an effort to educate and incentivize small businesses in food waste reduction procedures. The agencies found that, just like private homeowners, businesses benefited substantially from tools that allowed them to track their food use and the waste they generated.

The EPA also found that small restaurants (in the BSR survey, these were identified as those businesses with 10 or fewer outlets), were able to overcome their obstacle to composting when they joined together to take advantage of commercial composting services.

"Sometimes a single restaurant will not generate enough for the [compost] haulers to come or to outweigh the cost of getting the contract.  When small restaurants join up under one contract, it makes it more economical and easier for them to gain access to compost options," said the EPA.  Joining together as a neighborhood effort also means there are less trucks on the road and less emissions associated with the supply of services.

Of course, not all of the waste occurs at the preparation stage. A substantial amount of purchased, uneaten food is left on the table in U.S. restaurants, often due to abundantly large servings that are abandoned, rather than packaged up in "doggie bags."

"Customer engagement and interest is another key element for wasted food reduction in restaurants. Customer support of repurposing foods like leftover prime rib from Monday being used in Tuesday’s pot roast," says the EPA, helps ensure that uneaten food isn't destined for the landfill.

In the kitchen, coming up with innovative ways of repurposing chicken, beef, vegetables or other foods that weren't used the day before can reduce food spoilage at the preparation stage. Smarter, leaner approaches to menus help trim revenue loss as well. "[The] support of less choices on the menu to ensure that 4 pounds of lamb are not thrown away for the 1 pound that is sold allows the restaurant owners to make these choices without fear of losing their customers or money."

Through the Food Waste Challenge, restaurants also have access to a number of innovative software tools that help them fine-tune their purchasing and usage of the products they buy.

"Just-in-time software provides real time operational planning tools for managing large networks.  This includes scheduling and rescheduling of deliveries, lean manufacturing planning, and solutions for a mobile workforce that can quickly respond to customer needs," says the EPA. The software also "allows our participants to inventory and learn what their actual food use is, then allow[s] them to plan and execute the purchase of only what is needed, which helps them to reduce their wasted food."

Donating leftover food: The Bill Emerson Act

Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said that restaurant owners are often afraid to donate food to charity organizations. "There is a perception of liability," he said, that often makes businesses reticent to give away unused, day-old food. However the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, signed into law by the Bill Clinton administration in 1996, serves to indemnify businesses that are willing to donate to charities. Additional state laws provide their own support for similar charitable efforts.

The U.S. Food Waste Challenge program also teaches restaurants and other businesses that sell-by dates on cans and other products are only meant as a guide to help purchasers know when a product is considered freshest. But a recently passed sell-by date "doesn't mean mean it's bad," said Stanislaus, and doesn't mean it can't be donated if it isn't going to be used.

The type of wrapping that is used on take-out products also helps ensure a longer shelf life. "Efficient packaging and storage can increase the life of food products. Meat that is vacuum-sealed will remain fresh three to four days longer than meat that is wrapped in plastic," said the EPA.

Composting and recycling everything else

San Francisco's Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance of 2009 ensures that all private and commercial residents recycle and compost their reclamable materials, including food scraps. Other cities have since followed this example, with mandatory or recommended policies on composting and recycling that vary according to each municipality. The EPA and USDA Food Waste Challenge also works with restaurants to increase their access to composting and recycling options for those foods that can't be reused or given away.

Lastly, certification programs like those provide by the privately-run Green Restaurant Association help incentivize both restaurants and their patrons to think about the ways that they can ensure the food they purchase isn't wasted. The association's standards cover more than waste reduction, with a holistic approach to sustainable, affordable business operations.

"Leftover food is no longer seen as waste or something that people should push to the back of their refrigerator," the EPA pointed out. New strategies, innovative apps for our mobile phones, and thoughtful programs that help ensure restaurants and consumers get the most out of the food they buy translate not only to savings in what gets put into the fridge, but also what gets subtracted from the revenue at the end of the day.

Image credits: 1) Patrick Feller; 2) Business for Social Responsibility; 3) Environmental Protection Agency

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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