Wasting an opportunity

Cutting down on food waste potentially saves the foodservice industry billions of pounds, so why is it proving so hard to bring about?

When I took over as Managing Director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association over five years ago, I didn’t think I’d spend as much time as I have dealing with the distinctly unglamorous subject of food waste. But, for me, if one thing has defined the sustainability agenda over this period,  it’s that very issue. We’ve become far more aware of the amount that gets thrown away, both in the hospitality sector and beyond, and why it is such a serious problem. Much of this is thanks to high profile campaigns by the likes of TV chef Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, and good work by WRAP among others. But are we doing anything significantly differently than before?

Intellectually, we know that throwing food away costs money and has a huge impact on the environment, as well as being socially unacceptable for many people in the light of food poverty. Yet, for a multitude of reasons, progress is slow. WRAP’s Hospitality and Food Service Agreement set a modest target of a 5% reduction of food and associated packaging waste between 2012 and 2015.

Although the final figures have not yet been reported, progress to date shows a reduction figure of 3.6%, with 95 businesses signed up to the agreement. So why is it proving so hard to take serious action on something that seems to be a proverbial ‘no brainer’?

Certainly there have been some fantastic ideas, campaigns and initiatives – The Pig Idea, aiming to change legislation on feeding food waste to livestock; Plan Zheroes in the UK and City Harvest in the US, working to redistribute surplus food to people in need; and Toast Ale, brewing beer from surplus bread. All are great, but they are just scratching the surface and don’t deal with the real issue – the huge amount of good food that gets thrown away unnecessarily.

When we talk about ‘food waste’ we use terms like ‘avoidable’ or ‘unavoidable waste’, but we rarely talk about ‘surplus’. It might seem like semantics, but calling something ‘waste’ sets an expectation that it ends up in the bin. But so much food that gets thrown away doesn’t have to be, which leads on to the next reason progress has been slow.

Ingrained behaviour

Despite the raised profile of the issue of food waste, many businesses acknowledge there is an industry problem, but genuinely don’t believe they are throwing food away to any significant degree. Look closer and what they often mean is that waste is inevitable, or that the cost and effort of doing something about it just isn’t worth it. In other words, there’s a problem but not one that is worth trying to resolve.

Yes, greater awareness of the problem has driven a variety of solutions for reducing, managing and recycling food that gets thrown away. Yet I’ve spoken to countless businesses who say they cannot justify the investment they are asked to make based on returns that are often still projections and notional rather than based on proven, real-life bottom line savings.

Even when avoidable food waste has been reduced, foodservice businesses struggle to find cost-effective ways to recycle what is left. Despite assertions by the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) that, tonne for tonne, it’s cheaper to put food waste into anaerobic digestion (AD) than landfill, these savings rarely find their way to restaurants and foodservice companies. A waste haulage-charging regime based on bin lifts rather than weight or volume, coupled with the need to remove food waste daily, means that potential cost reductions are more often than not lost.

The future of food waste

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s still early days, and there’s still time for the industry and policymakers to find ways to capture the big prize – the £2.5 billion that WRAP estimates food waste costs the hospitality and foodservice sector each year.

There are encouraging signs of companies that are seeing things differently: Chefs Eye has developed a cost-effective and flexible solution for ‘smart metering’ food waste; and Organic Waste Logistics (OWL) is challenging the traditional waste haulage model by creating a unique solution for storing and collecting food waste that ensures it goes to AD while driving down collections by nearly 90% and saving money as a result. The next five years promise to be even more exciting than the last five.