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How to reduce your food waste

09 October 2008 by

A staggering 3.3 million tonnes of food waste from hotels, restaurants and bars goes into landfill sites every year. Janet Harmer looks at how the hospitality industry can reduce that figure in a way that would boost its environmental standing and help the bottom line

In an ideal world every morsel of food which passes through a professional kitchen would be efficiently turned into a selection of fabulous dishes and devoured by enthusiastic customers. There would be no waste, either in the preparation of the food or as a result of perfectly clean plates returning to the kitchen.

But this is not the perfect world, and there will always be a certain element of food waste. No matter how creative a chef may be in turning vegetable peelings into soup or transforming fish offcuts into pâté, items like eggshells, banana skins and tea bags are unlikely to be reused. And when it comes to plate waste, even the best restaurants have a certain amount thrown away, even it is only the odd quail or sea bass bones.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of food waste from the hospitality industry currently goes to landfill sites. A total of 19 million tonnes of food is thrown out with general rubbish in the UK every year, with 3.3 million tonnes of it coming from hotels, restaurants and bars, and probably the same amount being discarded by hospitals, schools and other mass catering outlets.

The environmental implications of all this wasted food are enormous. Wasted food is quite simply a waste of resources - just think about all the energy, water and packaging involved in the production, transportation and storage of getting food to a customer's plate. Then, once the food ends up in landfill sites, rather than harmlessly decomposing, it rots and releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.

About 20% of the country's climate-change emissions are related to the production and transportation of food, yet one-third of all food is being thrown away. If food waste was eliminated, it would be the same as taking one in five cars off the UK roads.

Reducing food waste sent to landfill also makes economic sense. With the cost of landfill tax for each tonne of waste doubling from £24 earlier this year to £48 by 2010, businesses cannot afford to ignore the environmentally friendly option.

"Minimising and recycling food waste must be an increasing priority for the UK," says Dr Richard Swannell, director of retail and organics programmes at the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP). "Through anaerobic digestion technologies, food waste from the hospitality and catering industry can be diverted from landfill and recycled into products which can be used as a valuable fertilisers. This can reduce business costs and lower harmful greenhouse gas emissions."

What, therefore, is the hospitality industry currently doing to cut back and recycle its food waste? The answer is that although efficient operators have long been on the ball when it comes to reducing food waste, many businesses are only now looking at recycling.

"We have spent the past three years getting our house in order to reduce our impact on the environment," says William Baxter, deputy chief executive of BaxterStorey. "Knowing how to deal with food waste has been a major challenge, but we are now in a position to introduce a major programme of food recycling to around half of our 500 sites over the next 12 months."

BaxterStorey has, for some time now, been vigilant in recyling paper, tin and glass. Recycling food, though, is not quite so straightforward. There are a number of different options for its disposal, depending on location, time and finances.

First, work out the extent of the problem. Caterers should start by assessing exactly how much food waste is taking place - both in preparation and in the amount returning to the kitchen from the customer - and monitor this over a period of time. Then, they need to take steps to minimise the waste (see panel, page 36) by targeting areas for improvement.

"The best way of dealing with food waste is to reduce it as much as possible," says Clare Campbell, food and drink specialist at Envirowise, which offers Government-funded free advice to businesses on how to minimise their environmental impact and, at the same time, increase profitability.

"Look at where the waste is taking place, and if, for instance, large quantities of lettuce are being thrown out on a regular basis, find out why this is happening. It may be because the lettuce is going rotten before it can be used because the quantities ordered are too large, or the lettuce has travelled too far. The answer is to cut back on the amount of lettuce you buy - or order from a more local supplier."

Attention should be turned towards the environmental disposal of the remaining waste, by compositing in the traditional manner, by leasing or purchasing a composting machine that accelerates the traditional composting time, or by signing up to a company that will remove the waste for you and take it away to be turned into renewable energy or fertilizer.

Compact bins

Traditional or accelerated composting tends to be found at hotels or restaurants that have space on their land to house the bins (see case studies, page 33 and below), although Accelerated Compost manufactures compact bins which are in use in urban areas.

Caterers who would prefer to have their food waste collected should first contact their local authority to see if they are prepared to collect commercial food waste, but there are only a few councils across the UK that are currently doing so. One such council is in Cardiff, where Le Gallois, a 60-seat restaurant, is one of a number of eateries to sign up to the food collection scheme.

"We were eager to take part, and since doing so three months ago we have reduced our landfill waste by 80%," says head chef Grady Atkins.

Elsewhere, caterers should search the internet for food recycling schemes, which are increasingly being set up around the country. In Yorkshire, for instance, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme is currently looking for hotel and conference facilities to trail the Grott Box. Funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the programme is seeking to create opportunities from commercial waste. (For details about the Grott Box, a patent-pending compostable caddy that contains all food waste and odours, see Contacts panel below.)

Meanwhile, within the M25, Aardvark Recyling is a social enterprise where all profits are put back into local community projects. All cooked and uncooked food waste is collected in kitchens in 40-litre biodegradable bags, which are then transferred to 120-litre bins in service areas or loading bays.

Processing plant

Aardvark collects the bins between once and three times a week and transports the food waste to its processing plant in south London, where it is composted in Rocket accelerated composters. The resulting compost is redistributed back into the community, to residents, growing groups and green spaces.

"Demand for our service is rapidly growing among independent restaurants, staff restaurants and within hospitality catering, as companies strive to divert more of their waste from landfill and reduce their carbon footprints, as well as for corporate social responsibility purposes," says Natasha Harris, development manager at Aardvark.

BaxterStorey is believed to be the first major caterer to deal with its food waste on a national level, and has chosen to do so in conjunction with the PDM Group, a food processing manufacturer which also converts food waste into biofuels, used to generate renewable electricity.

"We have been testing the collection of all our food waste - both cooked and uncooked - over the past year in 19 contracts around the UK," says Baxter. "Its success has meant that we are now extending it to 250 sites and forecast that over the next 12 months we will be recycling 2,000 tonnes of waste food, which will be equivalent to generating enough electricity to power 200 homes."

The cost of the weekly food collections is £20 per site, which is currently equivalent to the cost of sending waste to landfill. However, with the increase in landfill tax, using the PDM Group for food disposal will be more cost-effective in the long term.

Baxter explains that the company took its first steps toward recyling food waste when it began to collect and package all the ground coffee waste from the seven million cups of coffee it sells every year in biodegradable bags. "These were then made available for our customers to take away with them to use as compost on their gardens," says Baxter. "By doing so we've saved 150 tonnes of coffee grounds from going to landfill."

"We may one of the first hospitality companies to deal with food waste on a national level, but I would be very surprised if this doesn't become standard practice everywhere in the near future - so long as the facilities are accessible."

The Pear Tree at Purton, Wiltshire: Accelerated Composting

As a result of its green credentials - the hotel has won a silver award under the Green Tourism Scheme - the Pear Tree at Purton was selected by Defra to trial the Rocket accelerated composter 18 months ago. The trial proved so successful, with 1.7 tonnes of uncooked vegetable waste now being composted annually and a reduction in the cost of waste being sent to landfill, that the hotel has now installed the machine permanently.

At the same time as it started to compost vegetable peelings, layered with garden waste and shredded newspapers, in the A700 machine from Accelerated Compost, the hotel also began to recycle bottles. As a result of the two initiatives, the hotel now sends three wheelie bins of general waste to landfill at a cost of £2,200 per annum, compared with four wheelie bins, costing £3,300, previously.

The chief benefit of the composter is that it reduces the composting time to just two weeks - compared with the 12 months or so it takes traditionally.

"It is a win-win situation," says Francis Young, who runs the hotel and 50-seat restaurant with his wife, Anne. "Not only are we saving money by cutting back on the cost of sending waste to landfill and by not having to pay out for compost, but we are also experiencing a huge amount of interest from guests, who want to know about our green policies. We actually get a lot of requests from customers who want to take a look at the composter, which is about the size of a coffin and is positioned at the back of the hotel."

Young says that the hotel currently composts only uncooked vegetable waste, although the manufacturer of the composter says that all raw and cooked food waste, including meat and fish, can go through the composter. "We are not comfortable with composting meat products, because of the risk of rodents," says Young.

However, Sam Wareing, of Accelerated Compost, says there is no risk of rodents, as the composters, which can take between 50 and 20,000 litres of waste, are completely enclosed. "The machine speeds up the composting process by mechanically moving the food waste, mixed with garden and wood waste, 24 hours a day, at a constant temperature of 60°C," he says.

The Rocket accelerated composters range in cost from £8,000 to £40,000, or they can be leased from £160 per month.

The cost of food waste

Let's say 1kg of ingredients costs £1. If it becomes waste, that's £1 off the bottom line and 5p on the waste bill. Preventing that food from becoming waste adds £1.05 to profits, or 20 times the cost of disposal - and that's not counting the cost of handling and preparing the food before it is thrown into the bin.

Source: Envirowise

Strattons Hotel, Swaffham, Norfolk traditional composting

The commitment to reducing food waste at Strattons, a 10-bedroom hotel with 24-seat restaurant, is just one aspect of a wider environmental policy that has resulted in more than 98% of all waste being reused or recycled, with a total financial saving of £10,000 per annum.

Owner and chef Vanessa Scott says that food wastage in most kitchens is down to lazy management. She has succeeded in minimising the food waste at Strattons by cooking food to order and compiling a menu from what she describes as "multifaceted" ingredients.

Scott explains: "We currently have a lunch dish of north Norfolk smoked haddock, which we serve with leeks, potatoes and a hollandaise sauce. The fish trimmings are then used to make kedgeree and fishcakes."

For the past 18 years Scott and her husband, Les, have composted all organic food waste - such as vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and tea bags - on the hotel's vegetable patch at the back of the 300-year-old building.

"We operate a simple system in which we have three huge composting bins into which we put food waste, layered with grass cuttings and manure. Each compost is turned over every three months and is then dug back into the garden after 9-12 months.

"The process is probably slowed down by the fact that we add oranges to the compost - the high acidity of the fruit tends to delay the process - but with the added manure the system works well for us."

With Strattons producing up to 100kg of organic waste from the kitchen per week, accounting for about 37% of the hotel's total waste, traditional compositing is a cheap and efficient means of dealing with the hotel's food waste. "Not only does it not cost us anything," says Scott, "but we also make savings on not having to buy compost for the garden, where we grow organic vegetables, salad leaves, herbs and fruits such as nectarines, peaches, Victoria plums, cherries, figs and grapes."

Smiths of Smithfield, London collection and recycling of food waste

Since Smiths of Smithfield, introduced food recycling in March - to add to its recycling of glass, paper, cardboard and plastic - John Torode's four-restaurant operation with a total of 430 seats in the City of London has been able to recycle 85% of its waste.

All raw and cooked food waste, except for large meat bones, is collected in the kitchen in starch bags, which are then transfered to 220-litre bins. Five of the bins are collected daily by Cawleys, a waste-management and recycling company, and transferred to an anaerobic digestion plant operated by Biogen, where it is converted into electricity for the national grid and a liquid fertiliser.

While the collection of the food waste is currently twice the price of general waste collections, it is likely the differential will decrease as the landfill tax rises.

Restaurant manager Joe Nixon describes the system as clean, efficient and easy to operate.

"In today's increasingly environmentally conscious society it is important that restaurants acknowledge their responsibility to identify alternatives to landfill and demonstrate to customers that they, too, are recycling," he says. "The restaurant industry is often viewed as an all-consuming industry. At Smiths we want to move away from this image and make sure all aspects of the business look and feel good, including the waste-disposal methods."

How to minimise food waste

  • Calculating the cost of your food waste is the best means of spurring yourself into action. Envirowise suggest you do this by assessing the average cost of food ingredients from a sample of invoices. Monitor food waste over a period of time by multiplying the number of bins you send to landfill by the weight per bin. Then, multiply the cost per kg of the waste collection by the actual weight to arrive at the cost of your food waste.
  • Ensure accurate ordering and stock rotation in order to avoid ingredients going out of date.
  • Order on a daily basis, if possible, in order to meet the demands of your business better.
  • If there is a cancellation in bookings, freeze any food that has not previously been frozen.
  • Be creative with vegetable trimmings to make tasty soups, such as pea pod soup.
  • Turn uneaten toast from breakfast into breadcrumbs for fishcakes, and stale brioche into bread and butter puddings.
  • Write menus with a consideration for the use of offcuts. For example, pork and chicken trimmings can be turned into pâtés and terrines.
  • Turn any glut of home-grown produce into chutneys, pickles and jams.
  • Dehydrate unused fruit and vegetables to create intensely flavoured powders. Season a sauce with a mushroom powder made by drying out fungi in a low oven and whizzing in a processor, or sprinkle a similarly made raspberry powder over sorbets and ice-creams.

New disposal guideA new guide on the cost savings and other benefits available to caterers by adopting best practice in managing the disposal of fat, oils and grease has been published by Envirowise. The guide can be downloaded free from the Envirowise website.

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