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Tackling the food waste mountain

The smart way to deal with food waste is to reduce, recycle and reuse, whether that’s through creative use of leftovers or taking it back to the farmer’s field where it began as compost. Janie Manzoori-Stamford looks at how chefs are closing the loop with their food use

Imagine that for every £100 your company spends on food, you only receive £80 worth. Put like that, it’s the kind of business economics that is, quite frankly, bonkers. And yet about 20% of all food bought by the UK hospitality industry is wasted.

It’s costing businesses 50 pence per cover each year, equating to around £20,000 a year for the average business. To put that into perspective, UK hospitality is collectively throwing away £2.5b a year. These are eye-watering numbers.

But the tide is turning. “If people weren’t already persuaded by the environmental and social impact of food waste, the economic argument has begun to sound persuasive,” says Andrew Stephen, chief executive at the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), which reports that more than 80% of its members now separate their food waste (a proportion that falls to two-thirds for independents).

The numbers are moving in the right direction, but there is still 20% (or a third for independents) who either need convincing or, more likely, to employ the tools to help them to do so. For an operation to know where to start, it needs to identify the problem. As Stephen says: “If it isn’t measured, it isn’t managed.”

Composting bins in the community kitchen garden at National Trust's Hatchlands Park, Surrey
Composting bins in the community kitchen garden at National Trust’s Hatchlands Park, Surrey

In the late noughties, organisations such as WRAP and the SRA started measuring waste, identifying the scale of the issue at a macro level. While the total numbers are staggering, it helps for a business to know what its own contribution is. Tools like Winnow’s cloud-based waste monitor, which comprises a digital scale and connected tablet, can make a big difference by pinpointing which items are being wasted.

“It gives chefs the information to drive improvements in their production processes and to cut food waste in half, saving money and reducing their environmental footprint,” says founder Marc Zornes. But food waste is a complex beast and that’s only the beginning.

“The challenge has been to understand that waste is created in different ways,” says James Holah, executive sous chef for Selfridges, which last year hosted US chef Dan Barber’s food waste pop-up wastED at its London store. “You need to have different but connected solutions to deal with the problem effectively.”

Last year the company reduced the waste from its own food outlets by 22% through increased efficiencies in planning, ordering and housekeeping, and it is offering support to its brand partners to do the same. There is a move away from ‘supersize me’-style promotions, and after the amount of food waste created is reduced, Selfridges looks to ‘recycle’ food waste through innovative cooking.

“We have an initiative called Less Waste, More Taste that celebrates delicious products made from surplus food,” says Holah. These include making marmalade from orange skins from the juice bar, and the Brass Rail Scotch Egg, which is made from salt beef offcuts and breadcrumbs from the previous day’s loaves.

Fertile ground

Of course some residual waste is inevitable in any food operation, so after reduction and reusing comes recycling. Some businesses, such as restaurant Silo and the National Trust, have the option of doing it in-house.

The compost area in the garden at National Trust's Quebec House, Westerham, Kent. © National Trust
The compost area in the garden at National Trust’s Quebec House, Westerham, Kent

“In many of our kitchens, food waste is composted and returned to the soil as fertiliser,” says National Trust food and beverage development manager Matt Hughes. “At Nunnington Hall in North Yorkshire, kitchen and garden waste is put through a four-bay composting system to create well-rotted fertiliser and soil conditioner.”

But on-site facilities aren’t always feasible. External suppliers such as Indie Ecology can turn food waste into fertiliser on behalf of operators (see panel), while waste management firm Biffa encourages businesses to separate food waste from landfill waste through its Food for Fuel campaign.

“Once food waste has been properly segregated, instead of being sent directly to landfill, we can ensure it goes for recycling at an anaerobic digestion plant, converting it to a form of renewable energy,” says Russell Leach, head of retail at Biffa. “The cost of food waste disposal can be as much as 70% less than residual waste, so it makes economic sense to arrange for it to be collected separately.”

It is clear that there are plenty of arguments for reducing food waste alongside a plethora of tips and tools to help operators do so. And with the potential to save £14 for every £1 invested in food waste reduction initiatives, can any hospitality business afford not to?


Food waste in numbers

  • 20% of all food bought by the hospitality industry is wasted
  • £2.5b The cost of food waste to UK hospitality businesses each year
  • £14 The amount businesses save for every £1 invested in a food waste initiative
  • 10.2 million tonnes Total estimate for UK post-farm food waste in 2015
  • 1 million tonnes Total estimate for hospitality/foodservice food waste in 2015 Source: SRA and WRAP

Silo: at the sharp end of zero food waste

Silo- BrightonWhen it launched at the end of 2014, Silo in Brighton became Britain’s first zero-waste restaurant, raising the recycling bar and shining a spotlight on the myriad ways in which fellow hospitality operators could reduce their environmental impact.

According to founder Douglas McMaster, the fine-dining restaurant’s zero waste achievements comes down to three actions. The first is direct trade, which avoids any unnecessary packaging with reusable crates for deliveries.

Then there is maximising resources. “Chef Matt Orlando [owner and head chef of Amass, Copenhagen] once said, ‘there’s no such thing as a byproduct’,” says McMaster. “We adopted this thinking at Silo, finding ways of putting all surplus on the plate.”

And lastly, there’s smart composting. McMaster explains: “Any scraps from the cooking or leftover food go straight into the on-site compost machine, generating up to 60kg of compost in just 24 hours. This goes back to the farmers, helping to produce more food and successfully closing the loop.”

It’s clear that the Silo team takes its ethical responsibilities very seriously, but they’re not without their challenges – the biggest being managing expectations. Fine dining is heavily associated with premium ingredients, says McMaster, “but what’s premium is certainly debatable,” he adds. “At Silo we are limited to what grows, which results in a unique product that is not typically recognised as ‘premium’.”

Silo’s efforts are also cost-effective. Flour is milled, butter is churned and animals are butchered on-site, which McMaster says helps achieve some of the lowest food costs in the industry.

“There are ways of doing all this very efficiently when you simply serve the end product with no unnecessary garnishes,” he says. “So when you find the sweet spot, it has a very profitable potential.”

Bartlett Mitchell: dishes from recycled ingredients

Bartlett Mitchell's executive chef at its Financial Conduct Authority contract in the CIty
Bartlett Mitchell’s executive chef at its Financial Conduct Authority contract in the City

Bartlett Mitchell was the first contract caterer to achieve a company-wide three-star Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating in 2014, the highest accolade the SRA gives. The SRA has since named it the most sustainable contract caterer for three successive years, no mean feat for a business operating in 90 locations, serving 40,000 customers every day.

Reducing food waste is a massive part of the caterer’s CSR strategy. It begins with a simple ethos that its chefs should prepare every menu, work out how much to buy and be inventive with their use of ingredients.

“We have a ‘Waste-ed’ programme, which encourages our teams to think about how we can be more resourceful and reduce waste,” explains Sally Grimes, quality standards manager at Bartlett Mitchell.

The Waste-ed programme has a number of strategies, including an internal ‘weigh your waste’ initiative that records all food prep waste. City Harvest London collects Bartlett Mitchell’s leftover meals and redistributes them to more than 100 charities that nourish the city’s vulnerable men, women and children.

“Chef-director Pete Redman holds Waste-ed masterclasses to teach chefs innovative ways to recycle food by using leftovers,” says Grimes. This could be potato jam, herb stalk pesto, caramelised celery tarte tatin and watermelon rind relish, or porridge bread using leftover porridge.”

Last year the company achieved a further food waste reduction of 7.5%, which also meant a continued reduction in food waste sent to landfill versus alternative solutions.

Grimes says: “Our waste goes to aerobic digestion, sewer and composting. By ensuring our chefs log their waste, it generates a bit of competition and celebrates new additions to their arsenal of recipes as a result of thinking outside the menu.”

Indie Ecology: the food recycling farm

Indie Ecology food waste farming
Indie Ecology food waste farming

“Chefs have an immense power to inform and influence public opinions through taste, flavours and practical actions to recycle food waste into soil,” says Igor Vaintraub, founder of Indie Ecology. “Through working with the food waste farmer who gives chefs the necessary tools and knowhow to turn waste into taste through better land management practices.”

Vaintraub founded the West Sussex food waste farm in 2011 because he wanted to help chefs understand the true impact they can have on nature and the environment.

Indie Ecology collects around seven tonnes of food waste each day from around 80 London restaurants, including Trinity, the Frog by Adam Handling, Pied à Terre and the Ledbury, as well as Silo in Brighton. The food waste that might have been landfill is recycled into compost that is used to grow high-quality produce for the chefs.

David Moore of Pied à Terre says the biggest challenge can be getting staff buy-in. “It requires more organisation because people are lazy. You have to make it as easy as possible, so we have little caddies and bins dotted around the kitchen for food waste, recycling and landfill,” he explains.

Issues like these are far from insurmountable and ex-chef turned soil technician Vaintraub remains evangelical about the myriad pros associated with his scheme.

“Once a kitchen starts recycling food with us, it’s more than money can buy: they have a cleaner operation, there’s less smell, reduced use of plastic bags, and water savings through a reduced need to wash floors and the inside of bins,” he says. “It is hugely motivating for chefs to know that the food waste farmer is using their waste to create another life while protecting soil and biodiversity.”

AccorHotels: selling food at discount

accor-tgtg_2134AccorHotels’ portfolio consists of nearly 240 managed and franchised properties, representing more than 32,000 rooms and operations. Every sector is covered, from its collection of budget Ibis hotels to luxury properties under the Sofitel and Fairmont brands. Any efforts to support food waste reduction has huge potential.

As part of its bid to reduce food waste by 30% by 2020, the French company became the first hotel group in the UK and Ireland to join Too Good to Go, the world’s largest surplus food marketplace. It is a partnership that allows participating hotels – 25 to date – to sell surplus food to locals at discounted prices via an app.

The company has been working with Too Good to Go since September 2016 in other European countries and the results have been impressive: more than 32,000 meals have been saved across 208 hotels, equivalent to 65 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

According to Shane Munro, vice-president for food and beverage, AccorHotels UK and Ireland, using the surplus food marketplace has two effects on hotel operations: “The first is that food waste is reduced which, ethically and environmentally, is a massive plus,” he says. “The second is financial, as food that may otherwise have been wasted does not need to be disposed of, which means there is a saving in refuse collection costs.”

AccorHotels’ waste reduction goal comes down to three key strategies: reduce (purchasing, displaying, preparing); reuse (feed people in need, resell or donate); and recycle (compost, renewable energy).

“The first two are critical to avoid creating waste in the first place, which also leads to potential cost savings,” says Munro. “This is exactly what 18 hotels owned by Amaris Hospitality and managed by AccorHotels have achieved.”

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